PAX and the COVID-19 response

Image: Syrian Banksy painting at a refugee camp in Idlib, Syria. Syrian Banksy is an initiative of PAX partner organisation Kesh Malek.

April 7, 2020

PAX and its partners in fifteen countries across the globe believe that international solidarity, respect for human rights and a focus on peacebuilding need to be at the core of a coordinated international response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 virus has led to an unprecedented global crisis. In an effort to limit the spread, entire countries have gone into lockdown, suspending civic liberties and bringing economies to a standstill. As much as the pandemic itself, the social, economic and political effects will hit people in conflict regions and fleeing from conflict particularly hard. The COVID-19 situation is often compared with a war.

Peace and security are essential for people, and essential for states to be able to ensure basic healthcare services and to foster resilience. In a globalized world, the crisis will only be under control in any one country when it is under control everywhere. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ call for a global ceasefire is supported by over 70 countries, including the Netherlands. That is an admirable first step, but needs to be followed up with a plan of action.

Turbulent times

The COVID-19 crisis does not take place in a vacuum: the world was already facing the highest number of refugees since the Second World War. The last decade was the most violent since the end of the Cold War, with arms trade at an unprecedented level. Yet similarly unparalleled was the wave of civil protest against repressive governments and against the lack of action to prevent climate change and gender-based violence.

As a peace organization, PAX is keenly aware of how the virus and the response to it have an impact on peacebuilding and conflict resolution. While some of PAX’s partners continue their peacebuilding work online from home, others, for example in Iraq, are facing an emergency situation as they try to support their communities in their basic needs. Most African countries are hugely unprepared.

Seven trends

Following conversations with partners and other colleagues in the peacebuilding, human rights and humanitarian sectors, we have identified the following seven trends we deem crucial to monitor as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds and policy makers and politicians develop a response.

  • People affected by armed conflict are particularly vulnerable. Health systems are already overloaded and often badly damaged during violent conflict. In countries like Syria and Yemen, hospitals have been targeted deliberately. For refugees, for instance in Lebanon and on the Greek islands, medical facilities are close to absent, as are facilities for basic hygiene; social distancing is near impossible. Elsewhere, like in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, clinics and medical facilities are not accessible to all citizens. As the Ebola crisis has shown, shortages of food and medicine due to restricted distribution may add an additional layer of vulnerability. International organizations need to focus specifically on these groups most at risk.
  • The COVID-19 crisis is affecting women in conflict regions differently and harder than men. Women are more likely to be infected by the virus, given their predominant roles as caregivers within families and as frontline healthcare workers. At the same time, women are less likely to have power in decision-making around the response, and women’s rights and gender issues tend to be dropped off the political agenda in times of crisis. Quarantine measures have led to an increase in domestic violence and are dramatically impacting women’s often precarious livelihoods in informal economies. Cultural norms impede women’s access to information, healthcare and aid.
  • Governments and parties in conflict are abusing the COVID-19 crisis. Worldwide, civil liberties such as freedom of movement and assembly have been suspended in an unprecedented way. While measures might be necessary and effective to prevent the spread of the virus, they are only justifiable if temporary and democratically controlled. However, we are witnessing how authoritarian leaders such as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in Hungary, or paramilitary groups in Colombia are abusing the situation to limit rights of citizens and repress opposition. The encouraging emergence of powerful civic movements in Iraq and Sudan has come to an abrupt, albeit hopefully temporary, standstill.
  • The COVID-19 crisis will lead to an increase in violent conflict or even to new conflicts. Negotiation processes and peace operations have come to a halt. PAX is particularly concerned about the situation in South Sudan and the Syrian province of Idlib. We fear that mismanagement of the crisis and potential shortages of food and water will lead to new social and violent conflicts. Turkey’s decision to cut off water supplies to the northeast of Syria sets an alarming precedent. In Kosovo, the outbreak of COVID-19 has led to a political crisis that may further inflame social tensions.   
  • Lack of European solidarity. Only a few years ago the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and hailed as the most successful peace project since the Second World War, not just within Europe, but also as a major supporter of peacebuilding in the rest of the world. Yet in the current crisis the EU is struggling to uphold internal solidarity. Northwestern European countries, and in particular the Netherlands, show little appetite to deal with the expected economic crises in southern EU countries. A dire lack of response to the ‘coronavirus coup’ in Hungary, and possible similar authoritarian developments elsewhere, has further undermined the core values of the European Union.
  • Signs of Hope: Power of citizens. In the Netherlands, but in fact everywhere around the world, we also see amazing citizen initiatives that strengthen social cohesion, reaching out to the most vulnerable groups and supporting people combatting the virus. This is no different in conflict-affected countries, where people are used to improvising, dealing with emergencies and ineffective governments. Partners in South Sudan and Congo, who normally work on peacebuilding, are now focusing on sensitization of communities where governments are failing to do so. People are crossing conflict divisions in order to help to respond, like Palestinian and Israeli doctors. These initiatives can be the basis for further peacebuilding.
  • The need for international cooperation and solidarity in the response to COVID-19. In some regions parties in conflict have responded to the common crisis: tensions between Iran and Gulf countries have subsided somewhat and fighting in Yemen has diminished. But the states supporting UN Secretary General Guterres call’ for a global ceasefire need to do much more. Ceasefires need to lead to a political process to resolve conflicts. Whereas even a frozen conflict would hinder an effective response to COVID-19, a strong joint response could also lay the foundations for conflict resolution. A meaningful step would be for the global call to include a global halt in arms transfers. Signatories to the call should take this up as their responsibility.

People-centered response

The world will look different after the COVID-19 crisis, but what it will look like is determined by the present response. PAX and its partners strongly believe that the response to the pandemic needs to be people-centered. Women need to be part of decision-making. Communities have an important role to play to prevent the spread of the virus, and need to be listened to. Refugees and civilians in conflict zones are particularly at risk and their extreme vulnerability should be addressed as a matter of urgency. As international organizations and states are acting to prevent the spread of the virus and mitigate the harmful effects of quarantine measures, this is the moment to build on decades of investing in capacities and strength of civil society and community leaders. Peacebuilding and inclusivity need to be at the center of the response to COVID-19.

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