The corona crisis has the world in its grip. This of course includes the areas where PAX is working.
People in conflict situations are particularly vulnerable: for example, because hospitals are not functioning or have been bombed, where refugees are packed into refugee camps or where measures are being taken to combat the spread of the corona virus but whose real goal seems to be curtailing civil liberties. The question is whether these restrictions will be lifted again when the corona crisis subsides. Here is an overview of how the corona crisis is influencing our work.
Europe – the corona virus is a test
The PAX Europe team mainly works in the Western Balkans and Ukraine and focuses on promoting Europe as a peace project. Dion van den Berg, the Europe policy leader, says refugees in the Western Balkans are facing major problems. “They are stuck there under very difficult circumstances. When the virus comes along, the situation is completely outrageous.” He also sees the gap between rich and poor widening in Europe. “This is playing out between countries, but also within countries. If large groups of people in impoverished neighbourhoods lose their work and fall through the cracks financially, this can lead to additional tensions: even more rejection of ‘the other’, but also more domestic violence and even riots."
Governments are taking measures to limit people’s freedom. This should be closely monitored to see whether these restrictions will be reversed after the crisis. Some events such as the commemoration of 25 years since the massacre of Muslims in the UN safe haven of Srebrenica have had to be postponed or cancelled. PAX, meanwhile, continues to work with its partners, from home where necessary. For example, one of our colleagues gave a week-long online training to budding peace engineers in Ukraine. Van den Berg also advises keeping a broader perspective in mind. "All in all, the corona crisis is a major test for Europe and the EU."
Colombia - Corona as cover for violence
Colombian peace activists fear that the corona crisis is being exploited by illegal armed groups. In recent days, eight human rights defenders have been murdered while others have been threatened with death. Joris van de Sandt, programme leader at PAX, states that the Colombian state and local authorities have a responsibility to ensure the protection of all social leaders. “Illegal armed groups should not be allowed to act unhindered and unpunished during quarantine. We call on President Duque to protect the people not only from the coronavirus, but also from the weapons that have silenced so many people in the past.”
PAX's work is also affected by the corona crisis and the security crisis. For example, the sister of one of our colleagues was recently threatened with death. Both sisters were evacuated to a nearby city. Because of the time difference and the great distance between the Netherlands and Colombia, contact with colleagues and partners has often been through email and Skype. That experience comes in handy now. Van de Sandt: “However, we have decided not to unnecessarily expose the vulnerable groups we work with to the virus. They live far from the cities, and corona has mostly affected life in the cities. That is why we have shut down our work in those communities until further notice. In order not to ask them to come to the place with outbreaks of the virus, but also not to take the virus with them from the cities themselves. Since there is no internet there, something like Skype doesn't work. We’ve been on the phone a lot with local leaders.”
Africa - fear of food shortages and social unrest
Because it was long thought that the corona virus does better in colder climates and the speed it spreads was underestimated, measures against the corona virus in Africa were slow in coming. While severe and restrictive measures have been introduced in the Sahel, measures are now being taken and borders are being closed in South Sudan and Sudan. Marianne Moor, Africa team leader: “We have also imposed restrictions on our partners. For example, we don’t want anyone to attend large meetings and we’re helping people get the equipment they need to work from home. But you see that countries are struggling with what measures should be taken. In a large country like Congo, for example, the capital Kinshasa is completely closed off and the old Ebola measures have been restored in Goma, while nothing has happened in the rest of the country and all markets are simply open. ”
The main danger in Africa is that many borders are closed and that some cities are largely dependent on agricultural products from abroad. This may lead to food shortages in the long term. The measures therefore mainly affect the poorer population. In addition, some leaders see an opportunity to push through measures under the guise of fighting corona, further suppressing already marginalized groups. Moor: “I am concerned about the impact that corona measures may have on the peace process in South Sudan, which has been halted for the time being, and is seriously hampering good governance. Or the situation in Burkina Faso where the borders are closed and traffic between contaminated villages has been stopped, which also delays humanitarian aid to vulnerable areas. Our partners will remain active for the time being to bridge differences and to provide good information about the risks of corona. ” In South Sudan, our ecclesiastical partners take care of a great deal of people’s daily needs and in this way ensure stability. In Congo, our partners disseminate information about the risks of the corona virus via local radio broadcasts.
Middle East - the most vulnerable now even more so
PAX works with partners in a number of countries in the Middle East to heal societies torn by conflict. The coronavirus pandemic affects the work of PAX in several ways. Some governments use the situation to pursue undemocratic policies, protest movements are threatened, and the most vulnerable are now even more vulnerable. Marjolein Wijninckx, team leader for the Middle East: "We have noticed that in host countries the measures against corona have a disproportionate impact on refugees, for example in Lebanon, where authorities have taken additional measures in Palestinian refugee camps." PAX is also concerned about Syrian refugees in the region and internally displaced Syrians. Another group particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus are prisoners. Tens of thousands of people are currently being held as political prisoners in Syria. Of particular concern is that someone tested positive for the corona virus in a village near Syria's infamous Saydnaya prison, where many political prisoners are being held.
PAX's partners in the Middle East are in the same situation as we are here in the Netherlands: sitting at home, assessing which activities can be done, in what way, and which activities should be postponed or cancelled. People cannot move, but in the region this is sometimes enforced by the military. Colleagues and partners warn against the lack of reliable information on the spreading of corona in their country. In Iraq, partners support local authorities in preventing corona and preventing the spread of false information about the virus. Wijninckx: "Staying connected, promoting solidarity and strengthening social cohesion are very important to them right now, as are advocating for the protection of vulnerable groups."