Fears and tensions around ‘otherness’ and disease are ubiquitous in human society. Around the world, responses to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak are proving no exception.
The backlash across rural parts of the UK against a number of ‘second-homers’ choosing to travel in from London and other cities to self-isolate may be relatively benign. However, the potential for fear of the ‘other’ as a carrier can readily inflame and is apparent globally.
Reports emerging from Ethiopia of verbal and physical harassment of foreigners deemed to be bringing in the virus have prompted Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to call for calm. In Lebanon, increased animosity and pressure between Lebanese and refugee communities – already immensely strained – and between different identity groups within Lebanese society are noted by our staff and partners.
Foreign Affairs identifies a wave of hardening tension along sectarian lines – already fraught as they were pre-COVID-19 – across the wider Middle East. This has fuelled ‘Shi’ite’ demonisation’ in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, among other manifestations.
‘Othering’ of COVID-19 is apparent both within communities and at the political level. This has been clearly illustrated by US President Donald Trump’s insistence on dubbing the disease the ‘Chinese virus’ – despite repeatedly being called out by journalists for in doing so exacerbating social tensions and even attacks on Asian Americans.
In richer countries, the COVID-19 mortality rate and threat to public health institutions is unprecedented in our lifetime. In other parts of the world, where water is scarce and expensive, and accommodation crowded and unsanitary, the types of ‘social distancing’ and family hygiene being advocated to stem the spread of the disease are impossible to match. This reality has prompted calls for intensified efforts to improve water supply at this critical time from UN agencies and others.
Amid refugee and internally displaced persons (IDP) populations, conditions are even less auspicious. This week Syria reported its first confirmed case of COVID-19. As in many countries, actual infection rate figures may well already be higher. Still, the symbolism of this first reported case in a country ravaged by 10 years of bitter armed conflict is clear.
The humanitarian fall-out of COVID-19 will be devastating, says Norwegian Refugee Council Secretary General Jan Egeland. Whether in the remaining opposition strongholds of Syria or among the millions of displaced Syrians living in camps across its borders; as among displaced populations elsewhere, in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Greece, Iran, Kenya, Uganda, Yemen and Venezuela. This is a time for urgent attention and support for civilians displaced by war everywhere.
Disease, and fear of its spread, is a divider in society when our fears attach to the perceived behaviours and exposure of people different to ourselves; and where health services privilege those who can afford them.
But it can also be a connector, as we are forced to recognise our shared humanity, our same epidemiology. On this level, all vectors of perceived difference are levelled in the face of a pandemic such as that which now confronts us.
Earlier this week, UN Secretary General António Guterres made an impassioned call for a global ceasefire in the face of the global pandemic that now confronts us, to focus on the “fight of our lives”. The announcement by the Saudi-led coalition waging war against the Houthis in Yemen that it will respect a ceasefire in light of the pandemic, offers some hope this may be heeded. At a time of fast eroding confidence and conformity to the rules and norms of multilateralism, this pause in the face of a shared threat, is significant.
A relative hiatus in environmentally polluting behaviours has also been celebrated, from the dramatic reduction in air traffic that is reducing carbon emissions, to the return of water life to Venice canals. Amid the cacophony of COVID-19 memes and social media content that has flooded the various platforms as people have sought to understand this historic experience, a recurrent theme of ‘Mother Nature’ forcing humanity to press the pause button in order to reflect and learn a new way of being, hums through.
Abstract, simplified, maybe. But the idea that the current crisis can be leveraged to yield a better post-COVID world is compelling. Environmental campaigners are calling for ‘green’ economic rescue plans – for governments to leverage the unprecedented levels of state intervention in fiscal stimulus to enable economies to survive, to accelerate climate change mitigation priorities.
How can any temporary gains in the world of international peace and security be similarly sustained? While guns may fall silent in Yemen, the potential for COVID-19 to yield a more violent world is also stark. The enormity of an economic shock and subsequent depression can be anticipated to only sharpen pressure and competition within and between states.
The International Crisis Group has identified seven conflict-related trends to watch at this time, highlighting that the pandemic’s implications are especially serious for those caught in the midst of conflict; the ways in which peace operations and diplomacy efforts will be disrupted; the potential for some leaders to exploit the pandemic to advance their own objectives in ways that exacerbate domestic or international crises; for geopolitical friction and existing great-power tensions that were already in flux, to be exacerbated, in ways that complicate cooperation on crisis management.
We must all work together to identify how to transform this extraordinary new set of realities into positive new forms of international cooperation, climate change mitigation, investment in public health and other infrastructure, support to the most vulnerable in society – whether in the global north or south – and compassion for the ‘other’.
As peacebuilders, our work is more critical than ever in helping to understand and respond to what are certainly going to be far-reaching impacts of COVID-19, as they play out in conflict-affected places.
While focusing on the wellbeing and safety of our staff and partners, International Alert is embarking on precisely such scenario planning to anticipate and respond to COVID-19 in the 20 conflict settings where we work, as well as new peacebuilding priorities that may emerge on the global stage.
Amplifying the expertise and perspectives of our local partners and supporting them in the design and delivery of responsive peacebuilding with these new dynamics in mind will be our top priority. We will also flex to adapt to a world of travel restrictions, galvanised to model new behaviours responding to the climate agenda.
As the humanitarian response is dialled-up, International Alert will be offering our expertise grounded in experience from the west Africa Ebola crisis and our work with refugee populations in Lebanon, among others, to support greater conflict-sensitivity and a peacebuilding approach in the midst of humanitarian need.
The importance of ensuring that humanitarian aid is mindful of how it can affect local conflicts so as not to exacerbate underlying faultlines and divisions has been demonstrated time and again in other crises.
The global scale of the current pandemic implies an urgent need to augment capacity at the global level. Those lessons must be at the fore of international and national responses to the current situation.