Last March, as much of the world went into lockdown, experts began to reflect on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on violent conflict. Many feared that this added stress would exacerbate the underlying causes of the violence, while some believed there might be opportunities for peace, especially if warring factions regroup against a common (viral) enemy.
In a recent post guidance note, together with Corinne Graff from the US Institute of Peace and my colleague from the Center for Strategic and International Studies Janina Staguhn, we explored the relationship between COVID-19 and conflict.
Although the pandemic is far from over, our results show that to date, the pandemic has had little effect. direct impacts on violent conflict. The number of armed conflicts was already on the rise before last year and COVID-19 does not appear to have had a significant impact on this trend. While the direct impacts were less obvious, our evidence suggests that the pandemic has had several indirect impacts on violent conflict.
Concrete example: Afghanistan. The Taliban takeover last week has been a nightmarish scenario, especially when you consider the prospects for longer-term peace in a country that has continually been plagued by violent conflict for decades. While not as deadly as many feared (partly because the Afghan army quickly collapsed), the advance of the Taliban has increased the need for health services while compromising access, while limit the availability of COVID-19 vaccines. The inevitable emergence of new forms of violence, particularly against women and girls, will create new avenues for fragility to take root across the country. And it’s all happening in the midst of the threat forced displacement and humanitarian crises as Afghans flee at best the impending repression, at worst retaliation. While the Taliban’s rise to power may not have been directly impacted by the pandemic, the economic, social and health repercussions of their takeover will likely be exacerbated by the continued presence of COVID-19.
The research has identified three main indirect impacts. First, the pandemic has led to an increase in other forms of violence. Women in particular are disproportionately affected by the effects of the pandemic increases in gender-based and sexual violence. The closures have forced exploitative and violent relationships to continue nearby during a time of economic and health distress.
Second, the evidence suggests increases in the legitimacy of non-state armed groups as well as increases in the violent extremism, with the Islamists and far right extremist groups posing the greatest threat. Dissatisfaction with the government’s efforts to contain COVID-19 is a global phenomenon, as evidenced by the continued global protests in the past 18 months. Extremist groups and other armed non-state actors profit from this discontent – and the fact that people are spending more time online – organize, recruit and plan disruptive actions. In some cases, these groups have stepped in to fill gaps in governance and services, building their own legitimacy along the way. For example, gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Sinaloa cartel seized opportunities to “exploit the voids left by overwhelmed institutions” by enforcing closures and curfews and providing medical supplies and food . Hezbollah has also used its ability to provide health services to gain power and legitimacy in Lebanon. The more legitimacy these groups gain during COVID-19, the more difficult it will be to control their negative impact on peace in the future.
Finally, the pandemic has exacerbated the underlying conditions that make countries more vulnerable to armed conflict, including poverty and inequalities levels, ascending authoritarian leadership globally and the weakening of traditional global norms and institutions. In our analysis, these health and humanitarian, economic and governance impacts are of most concern in the long term. Any of these – let alone a combination – could lead to increased levels of violent conflict.
The indirect impacts of COVID-19 may take time to metastasize; however, this does not mean that governments and donors should de-prioritize prevention and peacebuilding efforts. Quite the contrary. Evidence suggests that peace is more achievable if conflicts are resolved before they escalate into armed violence. Now is the time to prioritize peace.
Sadly, many aid donors and multilateral institutions are distracted by global health and climate emergencies, not to mention the seemingly endless tragedies in places like Haiti and Afghans. While these are all important areas of intervention, it is equally important to incorporate coordinated, long-term strategies to deal with the potential for future conflicts throughout our response efforts.
Policymakers should start by conducting a deeper and more integrated analysis to understand the full extent of the pandemic’s impact on peace. Even if they learn more, they should incorporate what we know about conflict prevention into pandemic response and humanitarian aid efforts.
Countries should also redouble their efforts to immunize people in places affected by armed conflict. Vaccines are a win-win: while providing protection against the virus, ceasefires and the protection of the humanitarian space required to administer them provide opportunities on which to build peace. In vaccine delivery and beyond, policymakers should prioritize supporting credible subnational entities – including local governments and civil society groups – that are critical to delivering services to vulnerable people and whose legitimacy is important for lasting peace.
The United States can and should do these things. Although they differ depending on the local context, peacebuilding efforts generally focus on the same indirect impacts that we present in our research. In other words, policymakers do not need to start from scratch as they integrate violent conflict prevention and peacebuilding goals and programs into COVID-19 responses. The Review of stabilization assistance and Global fragility law both provide “useful frames to integrate conflict awareness and prevention of violent conflict into pandemic response efforts.
It is important to protect people from a deadly virus. Equally important is ensuring that responses to the pandemic lay the foundation for peace along the way and, at the very least, do not hamper the prospects for it.
Erol Yayboke is Director and Principal Investigator, Fragility and Mobility Project, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @erolyayboke