How could this crisis shift the way actors approach conflict? Will the experience of 'a common enemy' open up space for peace and durable ceasefires? Or would the case be quite the contrary, where actors would find opportunity in instability and hence higher incentives to wage war and conflict?
Perhaps the shared threat of Covid-19 will lead to parties laying down their arms – but this will clearly be different across different conflicts and societies. Some non-state actors will seek to capitalise on the vacuum left by a reduced military footprint. US Africa Command, for example, cancelled two military exercises in March in efforts to ‘protect our troops and African partners’ from the virus. Covid-19 is forcing governments to divert their attention and concentrate on public health and emergency response, which may create opportunities for non-state actors and insurgent groups – some of whom, in the past, have benefitted from instability to gain influence and recruit new followers. With forces confined to their barracks, and in some cases dealing with Covid-19 cases among their own ranks, e.g. the peacekeeping force in Mali, insurgent groups may seek to control access to things like medical help. Equally, national militaries may well need to take on additional responsibilities to help central governments tackle Covid-19, particularly in terms of assistance with logistics, thereby spreading resources more thinly. This may make it easier for some groups to carry out attacks on ‘soft’ targets, such as hospitals.
Relatedly, a longer-term consequence may be that, while governments are focussing on tackling Covid-19, insurgent groups may try to use this as an opportunity to assert control over territory and populations alike – thereby establishing the ground for further contestation later on. The Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, has been conducting a public health awareness campaign in the regions over which it exerts control, attempting to support its image that it is running a shadow government in parts of Afghanistan and thereby using the virus to legitimise the organisation – although it has continued to carry out attacks. A further consideration is the way in which access to healthcare is becoming politicised in conflicts, with actors seeking to control access in exchange for support.
A final important consideration is one of ripple effects. In countries in Europe and the US at least, there is a real possibility that Covid-19 will lead to an economic recession due to the halt in productivity and growth. If a recession were to happen, countries may well revisit their budgets and decide to re-allocate public spending elsewhere, putting international development and aid funding at risk, as well as peacekeeping missions. This would have a detrimental effect on both humanitarian efforts, but also stabilisation missions in fragile states. It would mean leaving many fragile and conflict-affected societies to their own devices when they will need sustained support and funding to firstly overcome Covid-19 and then continue to work towards sustainable peace and development.
Copyright : MAHMUD HAMS / AFP