COVID and Conflict Areas

What does COVID mean for countries that have been facing a variety of conflicts in the last decade?

Making a bad situation even worse

Upon a planet, already burdened by floods, earthquakes, diseases and host of internal conflicts, COVID has come as an unexpected bolt from the skies. While most conflict zones in Africa, Asia and the Middle East remain relatively infection-free, for now, the spread of the virus will have an unpredictable and catastrophic impact. Most such conflict spots are primitive in development, dangerous for any outside agency to operate, inaccessible and in most cases, beyond the writ of the state. Conflict areas are highly susceptible to the spread of viral diseases due to malnutrition, low vaccine coverage, and long-term stress.

Existing fault lines are being further exacerbated, exposing prejudices and competition between conflict-ridden populations. Shia minorities in Pakistan are being blamed for bringing the virus from Iran, creating fresh dangers for an already embattled minority sect. In India, the mistrust between communities is being fuelled due to a large number of infections from a religious gathering in Delhi.

Under a climate of mistrust and hatred where the authorities are perceived to be oppressors, from the urban clutter of Philippines to isolated hamlets in sub-Sahara Sahel, lifesaving advisories of even World Health Organization (WHO), can be outrightly rejected. Some earlier case studies bolster this argument.

Case Study 1: Tajikistan's Malaria Epidemic

Tajikistan had been rid of malaria as early as the 1960s. Between 1992 and 1993, the country experienced severe civil strife resulting in over 1, 00,000 people fleeing to Afghanistan where they got infected with malaria. When the Tajik refugees were repatriated in 1994, they carried the infection, re-establishing this killer disease after more than three decades of malaria free Tajikistan. In 1997, almost half a million were reported to be infected with malaria. It took the fledgling government almost two years and a great deal of international effort and financial expenditure to bring down the epidemic by 50 percent.

Case Study 2: Ebola Outbreak in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)

The Ebola virus has been playing havoc with West Africa since 2014, intermittently breaking out with deadly effect in some of the poorest countries of the region. DRC had the ignominy, having to confront the 10th outbreak in August 2018 with over 3000 cases reported and many more that had died untreated in the bush. This was in sharp contrast to other countries in the region which had successfully overcome the Ebola threat and protected their citizens, with the help of international agencies like Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders/MSF).

The worst affected areas in DRC were North Kivu and Ituri, which also happened to be the epicentre of rebel fighting. North Kivu is infamous for being a perpetual conflict zone for over 25 years, leading to huge population displacements in an already impoverished region. The high threshold of conflict prevented aid agencies like MSF to deal with the epidemic disrupting health care, surveillance, vaccination and contact tracing for an effective panacea to Ebola. The scenario has remained unchanged even today, despite the presence of UN peacekeepers and in the eventuality of COVID -19 getting a toehold, the human loss would be catastrophic.

COVID in conflict zones

The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres issued a grim warning on 3rd April saying that in strife-torn countries with almost zero health care, "the worst is yet to come." As per Guterres, "In some conflicts, fighting has not stopped, it has gotten worse," He reiterated his plea for a global ceasefire in all conflict hot spots so that the pandemic could be contained. While in some conflict zones, like Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Colombia, Libya, Burma, the Philippines, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, warring parties have agreed to cease hostilities, other like Syria, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan are more recalcitrant.

The parties in Libya had initially responded in a positive manner agreeing to a humanitarian pause to face COVID 19, but the truce did not last long. The European Union has announced its determination to bring the fighting to an end by launching a new maritime surveillance mission in the Eastern Mediterranean in an effort to stop the flow of arms and warlike stores.

The virus has already shown its presence in Yemen, Syria, and Afghanistan. Fortunately, Saudi Arabia and its allies have declared a unilateral ceasefire in Yemen, the first country to do so in the face of COVID, although the response from the Houthis is awaited. Saudi officials stated that it was done to jump-start peace talks by the United Nations, but that it had been "motivated by fears of the coronavirus spreading in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world."Africa has also started seeing COVID cases, in DRC, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt. This comes close after the country's largest Ebola outbreak was winding down, with no cases having been reported for 21 days.

Afghanistan has also seen many cases and is on partial lockdown, yet gathering for worship in the religious areas haven't been stopped. Controlling the epidemic in Afghanistan would be harder due to the influx of Afghan refugees from neighbouring Iran. On the other hand, there has been no let-up in attacks by the Taliban or the IS

What all these systems have in common is that due to their conflicts, there is a dearth of surveillance and response systems, a destroyed infrastructure, and inadequate health systems. This is not including weak housing systems and lack of hygiene, along with a lack of resources.

Assessments

  • It is a sad commentary on the human race that even at such times when the entire human race is endangered, the political and ethnic fractures, prejudices and hatred continue to thrive unabated. Jihad organisations have been calling upon their cadre to use this opportunity to strike when the attention of the "infidels" is diverted by 'the wrath of the Almighty (COVID 19)."
  • Most populations in conflict zones are already heavily dependent upon international aid agencies and donor governments for food, medical supplies, shelter, and what little development that is taking place in these countries. These agencies need to leverage their prior acceptance and influence to ensure mitigation/ coping strategies against COVID 19 are implemented in these conflict zones, as best as possible.
  • Due to the rumours surrounding the nature of this epidemic, an effective messaging from countries/agencies bold enough to carry succour to these areas need to dispel rumours, build common understanding, ease tensions and ensure the mitigating efforts themselves do not boomerang to exacerbate the conflict.

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