Forces of Conflict and Prospects for Peace in the Midst of COVID-19
COVID-19 is having a profound social, economic and political impact, particularly in poor countries with inadequate services, a weak health infrastructure, and low government capacity. Inadequate or badly calibrated government responses will increase any negative perceptions of government legitimacy and effectiveness and could fuel existing patterns of discontent.
Rebel groups, extremist groups, cartels and gangs are using these weaknesses as an opening to gain civilian support and power. In Mexico, for instance, cartels are delivering food and other staples that are stamped with their name to demonstrate their role and legitimacy. Radical Islamist groups are using failures of government to control the virus as propaganda to push forward their own narratives and conspiracies.
As governments put lockdown orders into effect, security forces in many countries are using indiscriminate violence against civilians to enforce these orders. While social distancing is of grave importance, this brutal application of police and military power could serve to further alienate populations, reduce public trust in government, and drive conflict.
The challenges presented by weak or profiteering governments and armed groups are further complicated by receding humanitarian and development gains. As governments, donors, and implementing partners alike struggle to adapt to restricted movement and strained supply chains, communities will increasingly struggle to ensure basic human needs—food, water, shelter for the displaced, and medical care—are met.
People living in slums, IDP and refugee camps are particularly vulnerable. The pandemic will undoubtedly increase inter and intra-communal conflict over food and supplies. The fight for survival is trumping the fear of COVID-19, making social distancing nearly impossible.
To make matters worse, rates of gender-based violence (GBV) are on a severe incline since the pandemic’s start. Although most reported rates until now are focused on Europe and the U.S., we are witnessing similar trends across the world, including in places like Iraq.
While prospects for conflict and violence are high, there are encouraging signs that prospects for peace also exist. For instance, many analysts believe that UN Secretary-General, António Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire in the face of “the true fight of our lives” has greatly impacted the initiation of ceasefires in Thailand, the Philippines, Colombia and Yemen. Of course, such unilateral agreements require a more comprehensive effort to be sustainable over the long term. The pandemic can serve as a shared opportunity to build trust and confidence across governments, insurgents and civil society.
In this COVID-19 world, we must mitigate the stark reality of increased conflict, insecurity and social disorder while identifying and amplifying opportunities and openings for peace. We must:
Continue to press on. Although development and humanitarian programming may be stalled in some situations due to travel restrictions, border closings and staff safety measures, it is important for peace practitioners to continue their efforts to the extent possible. A complete shutdown of critical services and goods at a time of such dire need will further harm communities already suffering from the pandemic. Donors and implementing partners should be ready to reconfigure existing local grants and explore new response mechanisms.
Find strategic peace. Local government institutions, civil society and donors alike must consider strategic entry points in the wake of the pandemic. This could include using local and international partnerships to create alternative ways to continue humanitarian aid flows. Where possible, donors and partners should capitalize on this period to unify humanitarian, development and diplomatic efforts that can bridge conflict divides.
Support transparent communications to deter myths. To combat the spread of disinformation and propaganda, governments, donors and local leaders must increase community access to trustworthy information using preexisting networks to help deconstruct stigmas and myths about the pandemic. Interactive radio programs and messaging through television programs, for instance, can be leveraged to educate populations on the risks of the pandemic to their families. Investment in communication efforts led by trustworthy sources and key influencers to share impartial COVID-19 updates should be encouraged.
Deter hate speech through positive messaging. It is critical to track and try to intercept hate speech and scapegoating as well as conspiracy theories and misinformation about the virus. Disinformation is being weaponized during this pandemic1. There are a number of social media analytic tools, some of which are configured for local languages, that allow sentiment analysis of particular issues, hashtags or accounts. A sample analysis on an anti-Chinese hashtag can be seen here.
Assess then act. Ensure assessments and activities integrate conflict sensitivity across all contexts. Rapid assessments should be deployed to understand how local dynamics have shifted in response to COVID-19 and regularly employed to asses changes over time, including intended and unintended consequences.
Finally, we must ask some tough and thoughtful questions to ensure conflict sensitivity around COVID-19:
- What are the perceptions of civil society/local populations of the COVID response?
- Who is being marginalized from (or supported with) health assistance and/or resources while minimal services are available? Why and How are these populations being marginalized or supported? How is this leading to perceived illegitimacy or ineffectiveness of the government?
- What historical tension or conflict among identity groups may exacerbate frustrations with COVID response? What potential harm may arise vis-à-vis our programming?
- What are the possible triggers surrounding COVID-19 that could aggravate the situation and lead to violence?
- How are health workers and first responders perceived by various ethnic/cultural groups?
- How has COVID-19 affected perceptions of and trust in government (central and local)?
- What organizations or groups continue to have access to communities – both mainstream and marginalized?
- Is there an increase in household or local violence since COVID-19 breakout? (e.g., child abuse, sexual or gender-based violence, local crime/theft)
- What mitigative or preventative actions can implementing partners take?
- What action is USAID taking or overlooking that could possibly do harm?
The challenges are great, but the time to act is now. Increased insecurity, instability, and conflict are some of the unfortunate realities we are all facing, but there are also openings to save lives and promote peace so that we may all emerge from this crisis stronger than before.
Read more about MSI’s work in peace and stability here.
1. Savvas Zennettou, et al. Network Contagion Research Institute. COVID-19 Weaponized Information Outbreak. https://ncri.io/reports/weaponized-information-outbreak-a-case-study-on-covid-19-bioweapon-myths-and-the-asian-conspiracy-meme/