In Brief | 16/06/2020

Investigating Corona and Conflict: How the Global Pandemic Might Affect Political Violence

With its devastating consequences, the global COVID-19 pandemic has initially tamed international conflict. However, these encouraging responses will most likely be short-lived.

  • Members of Rapid Action Force (RAF) patrol a neighbourhood to urge people to remain indoors during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in India
    © Reuters / Amit Dave
    Members of Rapid Action Force (RAF) patrol a neighbourhood to urge people to remain indoors during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in India
    © Reuters / Amit Dave

    On 23 March of this year, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire to “fight the true fight of our lives.” In response, the UN brokered a truce in Libya and, in Colombia, to give another example, the guerrilla group ELN stopped its fighting for a month. Barry Posen has even referred to a pax epidemia. Activists and policymakers have also requested easing international sanctions and granting humanitarian exemptions to Iran, Venezuela, and other countries to allow them to better tackle the raging health crisis. The “coronavirus puts Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ under pressure,” as the Washington Post aptly put it. Most notably, we see strong social solidarity across the globe – people helping and supporting each other to withstand the pandemic.

    However, these encouraging responses will most likely be short-lived, and COVID-19 will severely dampen the chances for peace in societies that are affected by violent conflict, particularly in the Global South. The pandemic will severely limit economic prospects, create deep job losses, increase social inequality, and infringe on the capability of state institutions, particularly in post-conflict countries that are already under stress and hardly able to provide services and security to their citizens. In countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, and Syria we can expect a “pandemic fallout.” This, however, is not inevitable and will depend on the confluence of various factors. To examine the effects of COVID-19 on future violent conflict, we need to differentiate between

    • short-term and long-term effects,

    • direct and indirect effects, and

    • different forms of violence.

    In the short term, in contrast to reassuring international initiatives and social solidarity in the face of the crisis, numerous governments have reverted to draconian measures and police brutality. In imposing their coronavirus lockdowns, they have violated human rights. Even governments in democratic countries such as South Africa deployed the army to enforce the stay-at-home orders, close bars, and disperse public gatherings and protest marches. The military is clearly ill prepared to execute these policing tasks. Political leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán or Russia’s Vladimir Putin seem to be taking advantage of the pandemic to extend their powers. In Zimbabwe, members of the opposition were abducted and tortured and a few days later charged with violating COVID-19 restrictions. There are credible reports of a serious increase in gender-based violence.

    As least as worrisome are COVID-19’s potential long-term and indirect effects on violent conflict. For one, we know that conflict “simmers” and seldom erupts immediately as an “automatic” response to economic, social and, in this case, medical distress. The long-enduring lockdowns across the globe, the grounding of economic activity and trade, and the ensuing worldwide recession – the World Bank’s predicted economic contraction of 2 per cent would be the largest since World War II – will put vulnerable, post-conflict societies under further stress and might cause some to tumble. The consequences of the coronavirus crisis are threefold: First, it will aggravate the poverty of the most vulnerable members of the society. Second, governments will divert funds and attention away from poverty reduction and other tasks to counter the pandemic’s effects. Third, these secondary consequences will, in turn, further weaken government capacity in countries where the state is often largely absent and unable to provide proper health care, a decent education, and security to its citizens.

    Beyond these material factors, perceptions will ultimately decide whether protests and conflict will turn violent. In countries that were subject to armed conflict, where the trust in government is low, and where social, often ethnic, groups consider themselves marginalised, the pandemic amplifies existing inequalities. In these contexts, jihadists and gang leaders might take advantage of the situation. Reports from Afghanistan, for instance, indicate that the Taliban have provided COVID-19–related health services as an attempt to win the loyalty of the local population. Thus, trust in government will be a crucial intervening variable that strongly influences whether violent conflict erupts or intensifies – be it riots on the street, increased fighting between rebel groups and state forces, or among violent groups. In any event, there is a long causal chain with different links between the coronavirus and conflict (Basedau and Deitch 2020), and the mechanisms will substantially differ across societies.

    What can the coronavirus pandemic be compared to?

    COVID-19 is of great interest to social scientists and peace and conflict scholars beyond its immediate medical effects and epidemiological characteristics, because it is (a) such a drastic shock that (b) hits very different societies and polities at a rapid speed and (c) strikes irrespective of regime type (though some pundits and scholars would dispute that), income level, dominating religion, or other factors that are usually important in explaining variety in outcomes. Yet, regime type and other aspects may well influence whether COVID-19 induces political instability in the future. How can we best analyse the pandemic’s effect on violent conflict?

    Notably, colleagues compare the coronavirus outbreak to other pandemics such as the so-called Spanish Flu (1918–1919), the 2002–2004 SARS epidemic in Asia, and the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa (Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea) in 2014, which the UN Security Council at that time designated a “threat to international peace and security.” In respect to its potential economic repercussions, various scholars, particularly in the United States, have drawn an analogy from the Great Depression between World War I and World War II (1919–1939). Making systematic comparisons to other epidemics and economic depressions will help us not only to establish commonalities with and differences from the current pandemic but also to better understand how dreadful consequences for violent conflict can be averted.

    Peace and conflict researchers have found unequivocal evidence of the dire repercussions of civil war for the provision of public health in affected countries. We know less about the reverse direction – meaning, how pandemics such as COVID-19 affect violent conflict. Are countries such as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the Central African Republic more affected by COVID-19 than OECD countries? Under what conditions does COVID-19 as a stressor amplify violent conflict in these contexts? Colleagues such as Reed Wood and Thorin Wright argue that pandemics can be compared to natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, and that under certain conditions, they have acted as “catalysts for social unrest, civil conflict, and state repression.” This seems plausible in the case of the virus. But we need to learn much more about the pandemic–conflict link and should invest considerable intellectual resources to examine the enduring, layering, and indirect effects of the coronavirus crisis on peace and conflict, particularly in the Global South – this is the precondition for devising adequate policies preventing COVID-19’s drastic medical and economic consequences being followed by more violent conflict.

    For a detailed analysis of the potential mechanisms leading to violent conflict, Pandemic Fallout: How Likely is Political Instability in Africa after the “Virus”?, by Matthias Basedau and Mora Deitch.


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