Last March, as much of the world was entering lockdowns, experts began to think about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on violent conflict. Many feared that this added stress would exacerbate the underlying causes of violence while some thought there might be opportunities for peace, especially if warring factions banded together against a common (viral) enemy.
In a recently published policy brief, researched in collaboration with Corinne Graff of the U.S. Institute of Peace and my Center for Strategic and International Studies colleague Janina Staguhn, we explored the relationship between COVID-19 and conflict.
While the pandemic is far from over, our findings show that to date the pandemic has had few direct impacts on violent conflict. The number of armed conflicts was already rising before last year and COVID-19 does not seem to have significantly impacted that trend. While direct impacts were less evident, our evidence suggests that the pandemic has had several significant indirect impacts on violent conflict.
Case in point: Afghanistan. The takeover of the Taliban last week was a nightmare scenario, especially when considering longer term prospects for peace in a country continually beset by violent conflict for decades. While not as deadly as many had feared (in part because the Afghan army quickly collapsed), the Taliban’s advance increased the need for health services while compromising access to them, all while further limiting the availability of COVID-19 vaccinations. The inevitable emergence of new forms of violence, especially against women and girls, will create new avenues for fragility to take root across the country. And this all takes place amidst looming forced displacement and humanitarian crises as Afghans flee impending repression at best, reprisals at worst. Though 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 identified three main indirect impacts. First, the pandemic has resulted in an increase in other forms of violence. Women in particular are disproportionately negatively affected by pandemic-related increases in gender-based and sexual violence. Lockdowns have forced exploitative and abusive relationships to continue in close proximity during a time of economic-and health-related distress.
Second, evidence suggests increases in the legitimacy of non-state armed groups as well as increases in violent extremism, with Islamist and far-right extremist groups constituting the greatest threat. Dissatisfaction with government efforts to contain COVID-19 is a global phenomenon, as evidenced by continued global protests throughout the past 18 months. Extremist groups and other non-state armed actors are taking advantage of this dissatisfaction — and the fact that people are spending more time online — to organize, recruit and plan disruptive action. In some cases, these groups have stepped in to fill governance and service gaps, building their own legitimacy along the way. For example, gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Sinaloa Cartel have seized opportunities to “exploit the voids left by overwhelmed institutions” by enforcing lockdowns and curfews and providing medical supplies and food. Hezbollah has similarly used its ability to provide health services to gain power and legitimacy in Lebanon. The more legitimacy these groups gain during COVID-19, the harder it will be to control their negative impact on peace in the future.
Lastly, the pandemic has exacerbated the underlying conditions that make countries more susceptible to armed conflict, including poverty and inequality levels, rising authoritarian leadership across the global, and the weakening of traditional global norms and institutions. In our analysis, these health and humanitarian, economic, and governance impacts are of greatest longer-term concern. Any one of them — much less a combination — could lead to increased levels of violent conflict.
The indirect impacts of COVID-19 can take time to metastasize; however, that does not mean governments and donors should de-prioritize prevention and peace building efforts. Quite the contrary. Evidence suggests that peace is more achievable if conflicts are addressed before they boil over into armed violence. The time to prioritize peace is now.
Unfortunately, many aid donors and multilateral institutions are distracted by global health and climate emergencies, not to mention seemingly never-ending tragedies in places like Haiti and Afghanistan. While these are all important focus areas, it is equally important to incorporate coordinated and long-term strategies to address the potential for future conflict throughout our response efforts to them.
Policymakers should start by conducting deeper and more integrated analysis to understand the full scope of the impact of the pandemic on peace. Even while they are learning more, they should incorporate what we do know about conflict prevention into pandemic response and humanitarian assistance efforts.
Countries should also double down on efforts to vaccinate people in places experiencing armed conflict. Vaccines are a win-win: while providing protection against the virus, the ceasefires and protection of humanitarian space required to administer them provide opportunities upon which to build peace. In vaccine administration and beyond, policymakers should prioritize support to credible subnational entities — including local governments and civil society groups — which are critical to providing services to vulnerable people and whose legitimacy matters for sustainable peace.
The United States can and should do these things. Though they differ based on the local context, peace building efforts usually focus on the same indirect impacts we present in our research. In other words, policymakers need not start from scratch as they incorporate violent conflict prevention and peace building lenses and programming into COVID-19 responses. The Stabilization Assistance Review and Global Fragility Act both provide “useful frameworks for integrating conflict awareness and violent conflict prevention into pandemic response efforts.”
It is important to protect people from a deadly virus. It is equally important to make sure that responses to the pandemic lay the groundwork for peace along the way and, at the very least, do not hinder prospects for it.
Erol Yayboke is director and senior fellow, Project on Fragility and Mobility, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Follow him on Twitter: @erolyayboke