COVID and Global Conflict: A Perfect Storm

 /  Dec. 17, 2021, 12:57 p.m.

covid army
U.S. Army Reserve forces deploy on a domestic mission to aid FEMA COVID relief efforts.

The long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be played out for years to come: shortened life spans, reduced GDP, and major gaps in education. Yet one of the most unexplored repercussions of the pandemic is the worsening and compounding of conflict, especially within fragile regions. The pandemic’s stress on resources and government legitimacy has created a vacuum for non-state actors to take advantage. COVID-19 has taken a massive toll on the stability of states already suffering from conflict, such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. 

One major way in which COVID has affected conflict zones is by reducing government capacity and legitimacy.  COVID has served as a test—can a government step up to the plate when faced with a massive public health crisis? The answer in many states roiled with conflict is a resounding “no”. The fragmented nature of many conflict-ridden governments lends itself to a haphazard pandemic response, in which a rebel group attempts to respond in one way and the government in another. An ineffective response to the pandemic, including insufficient access to  humanitarian aid and intra-government squabbling over mitigation measures, also gives fodder to extremist or rebel groups seeking to take control of the state. 

In addition, peacekeeping, fact-finding, and international state-building operations came to a screeching halt in the heyday of the COVID pandemic. Travel restrictions have left UN and NGO aid workers stranded and peace talks halted. Global leaders have been focused on their own populations rather than distant, war-torn countries. Plus, peacekeeping missions have been fundamentally altered, with longer tours of duty potentially resulting in lessened efficacy due to decreased morale. Meetings to agree on measures to assist struggling countries have been postponed or cancelled.  Many authoritarian governments have instituted press restrictions, supposedly for public health reasons, that limit the ability of aid organizations to assess local conditions. Given the need to respond to conflicts in a timely manner, the pandemic has severely limited both the desire and the ability of the international community to make preventing and halting conflict a top priority. 

COVID has also exacerbated food scarcity. Children are an especially vulnerable population in areas of conflict and COVID-exacerbated conflict has been no exception to this rule. In Yemen, for instance, which has been suffering from a massive civil war and related famine since 2014, travel restrictions due to the pandemic have made food even more difficult to obtain. Economic decline has stretched the health system and remittance system thin. As it stands today, over 12 million children are in need of humanitarian aid and 385,000 are severely malnourished. In Afghanistan, another conflict area, the effects of the Taliban’s takeover, rising food prices, and a lack of international aid access to the country have put one million children  at risk of starvation and death this winter. The inability  of international agencies to access conflict regions due to COVID restrictions and unaffordable food prices due to inflation is a deadly combination. 

In addition, the ability of individuals in other countries to send remittances home to their families has decreased with the pandemic. In Somalia, 40 percent of the population receives remittances from abroad. With COVID, the ability of family members to send remittances has decreased by about 50 percent. Social tensions, too, play a role in intensifying conflict. When resources are scarce, especially basic supplies such as food and water, grievances against the government can easily emerge, fueling the power of non-state actors. The social order in countries experiencing mass conflict is already fragile. Forced migration, which has occured in Afghanistan as the Taliban took power, has been made more difficult by COVID restrictions and the potential to lead to the further spread of COVID, as well as tear apart communities. COVID has made this worse by adding a communicable disease into the mix of social stressors. 

Non-state actors have also utilized COVID to tighten their grip on conflict-ridden societies. In Yemen, for instance, Houthi rebel groups have capitalized on fears of COVID lockdowns and government overreach to attempt to recruit new members. In Afghanistan, too, the Taliban offered ceasefires for public health purposes solely in areas they controlled. However, the aspiration that ceasefires could be agreed upon for public health purposes has proved to be idealistic, and the pandemic has actually created more vacuums for these non-state actors to fill. As bases can serve as breeding grounds for COVID, militaries have pulled back or resorted to operations from afar, as the United States began to do at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. This, in turn, leaves the door open for rogue groups to take territory and gain control, just as the Taliban has in Afghanistan. 

While COVID has long been a concern for these conflict-ridden states, they have not made headlines with skyrocketing COVID numbers. However, this does not mean that COVID has spared them. Most conflict zones lack efficient testing and tracking mechanisms, as  health systems are already stretched thin with conflict injuries. Refugee camps and militant training camps are perfect breeding grounds for the virus and international efforts for vaccination in conflict zones and healthcare have stalled globally. Even outside of COVID outbreaks, the pandemic has taken a massive toll. As state and non-state actors capitalize on fears of the virus, they have excuses for violent and draconian measures, such as restricting freedom of movement. Meanwhile, the international community remains focused on the ever-rising death toll from the virus, rather than the death toll on a far-removed battlefield. This hampers the involvement of major powers in these war zones, as most have returned home to protect their own populations in the face of a deadly disease. 

Amidst all of the sobering evidence on the intersection of conflict and COVID, there is one constant that has been omnipresent throughout the pandemic: uncertainty.  It is still unknown how the pandemic will affect conflict, terrorism, governance, and general societal health in the long term. However, in 2016, war was already at a level not seen since World War Two, a shaky foundation for post-pandemic peace. 

So what’s a shell-shocked, COVID-ridden, preoccupied global community to do? A concerted, lockstep effort by the global community is key. Unfortunately, it's far too late for a proactive approach. One idea that holds promise is the concept of a “New Deal”-style plan for states experiencing conflict, in which states would receive development and public health aid based on the combined effects of both conflict and COVID in their country. In addition, local authorities would get support to address grievances that could lead to further conflict. Other key elements of a global plan to address COVID is rebuilding trust in institutions. For instance, economic recovery plans should ensure that the social fabric of communities is maintained by involving local leaders and religious groups and increasing dialogue and communication between governments and their citizens. Yet the international community has failed in most of these essential steps. The UN should begin recovery planning for conflict-ridden areas as soon as possible. 

COVID is not the last pandemic the world will face. The international community must prepare for future pandemics or other global disasters by updating international institutions with consolidation and modernization, making them more able to respond to quickly changing crises in a timely manner. The U.S., for instance, has demonstrated that it is seeking to take a step back militarily with the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This means, however, that more resources can be devoted to engagement with other nations and diplomacy. Preparing for the next pandemic by promoting stability is the best thing the international community can do after a lackluster response to COVID in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries. 

The image used in this article is in the public domain. It was taken by Staff Sgt. Shawn Morris and can be found here.

Julianna Rossi

Julianna Rossi is a third year Political Science major and Human Rights minor. Originally from Los Angeles, California, she spends her time on campus as the Chair of UChiVotes and as a communications intern for the IOP. Besides that, she loves cooking and baking, reading the news, and exploring Chicago.


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