The intersection of Covid-19 and conflict in Asia is likely to compound the difficulties in effectively responding to the pandemic as well as increase the likelihood of the escalation or recurrence of armed conflict. There are, however, a number of measures that can be taken to help avoid this outcome.
Conflict and Infectious Disease
Conflict-affected environments are particularly vulnerable to the outbreak and spread of infectious disease for a number of reasons. These include insufficient resources to identify and respond to outbreaks, as well as inadequate healthcare systems with damaged or destroyed infrastructure, and limited equipment and staff.
People in conflict zones are also especially vulnerable, often living in insecure environments with limited access to food, clean water and healthcare, compromising their immune system. This is especially the case if they live in overcrowded and unsanitary refugee or displacement camps, such as in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh and the displacement camps of Myanmar. Vaccination programmes are often stalled in conflicts, further compromising immunity: in Afghanistan, for instance, only 50% of children under the age of 5 have received all recommended vaccinations. They might also have limited access to soap, which means they cannot protect themselves through good hygiene practices. They are unlikely to be able to socially-distance themselves from each other because they often live day-to-day, needing to go out each day to access essentials, such as food. They might also have limited access to life-saving healthcare information, because humanitarian organisations are unable to reach them, because they have limited access to telephones or the internet, as is the case in Cox’s Bazar, or because they might have little confidence and trust in authorities and/or healthcare systems.
Covid-19 in Conflict Zones: Consequences and Challenges
There are some expectations that the coronavirus pandemic can bring peace to places affected by conflict, with warring factions uniting against a common enemy and the world coming together and “waging war against Covid-19,” in the words of the UN Secretary-General. This would, at the very least, allow humanitarian actors to reach the most vulnerable and prevent the occurrence of even greater humanitarian crises when Covid-19 takes hold of places with few resources to stop its spread.
We have seen previously, after the 2004 Tsunami for instance, that bigger threats can instigate a cessation of hostilities, in this case in Aceh, Indonesia, although the world’s attention on Aceh had more to do with this than parties to the conflict coming together against a common threat.
What we are seeing today, however, is that despite the call for a global ceasefire by the UN Secretary-General, armed hostilities have increased in some of the conflict zones of Asia, with parties to the conflict utilising the crisis for economic or political advantage or assuming the world’s attention – and its ability to respond – has declined.
Where ceasefires have been declared, in Thailand, Philippines and Myanmar, for instance, they have tended to be unilateral and have often been broken or quickly fallen apart. In Thailand, for instance, hostilities resumed after the Thai military killed 3 insurgents during the unilateral ceasefire declared by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional. In Philippines, there have been continued clashes despite ceasefire declarations by both the New People’s Army and the Government, undermining any trust that ceasefire extensions or further declarations are genuine or will hold.
In Myanmar, unilateral ceasefires have been announced by the Arakan Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army. Simultaneously, however, there has been an escalation in conflict in parts of the country, notably in the west between the government armed forces and the Arakan Army, with the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in Myanmar alleging the coronavirus has emboldened the Myanmar military to commit crimes against humanity and war crimes.
In Afghanistan, while the Taliban has declared a ceasefire in its controlled areas if there has been an outbreak of the virus, there has also been a spike in attacks by the Taliban in parts of the country after an initial reduction in violence after the call for global a ceasefire. There has also been an increase in sectarian attacks by the Islamic State, alongside pronouncements that its members should utilise the current crisis to its own advantage. Attacks on a maternity ward and a funeral on 12 May also precipitated a resumption of offensive attacks against the Taliban and other militant groups by the Government.
Meanwhile, we are also seeing non-state armed groups in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Philippines and elsewhere taking measures to help prevent the spread of the virus and enable humanitarian access to those in need. In Myanmar, for instance, the United Wa State Army has introduced travel restrictions. In Afghanistan, the Taliban has also issued instructions to avoid public gatherings, distributed medical equipment, conducted health information awareness-raising workshops, and provided security guarantees to aid and health workers in its controlled area. However, there have been concerns that these efforts are not always genuine, and commitment to comprehensive ceasefires remain wanting.
These examples indicate that COVID-19 can lead to a cessation of hostilities if there is a prospect of non-state armed groups gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the international community. However, unless conflict dynamics, causes and effects are addressed, any peace is likely to be short-lived. These examples also demonstrate that unless there is accountability and trust between the parties to the conflict that declarations of ceasefires will be honoured, little progress towards a sustainable peace will be made.
This accountability, trust and legitimacy can be supported by the international community through effective and independent ceasefire monitoring and reporting, and through continued attention on and engagement with conflict-affected environments. Holding to account non-state groups who seek to capitalise upon a depleted state or distracted international community, can help reduce the likelihood of increased insecurity and conflict, as can holding to account governments that might take advantage of the crisis to supress rivals or to repress or persecute people.
The international community also needs to commit to improved international co-operation and information sharing. Moreover, it needs to continue to commit its resources to conflict-affected environments to avoid the spread of Covid-19 within and beyond their typically porous borders. The current diversion and curtailment of international funding and attention is likely to compromise efforts to contain Covid-19 as well as further undermine the resilience of conflict zones to future threats, including the escalation and recurrence of conflict.
Equally destabilising is the disruption of the delivery of humanitarian aid, peace operations, peace talks and diplomacy efforts as a result of travel restrictions and social-distancing practices. Restricting activities to only what is essential also risks further undermining resilience and overlooks the fact that other persistent threats – including physical violence, food insecurity, and other diseases – may increase as a result of Covid-19 or responses to it, and can also kill. In Afghanistan, for instance, there are concerns that millions of people could starve, due to food shortages and the disruption of humanitarian aid. Where lockdowns prevent business-as-usual responses to such threats, innovations – such as mobile cash transfers in this case – will be needed.
More broadly, innovation, adaptability and navigating the provision of aid without causing harm become ever more essential as humanitarian organisations face unprecedented logistical, co-ordination and financial challenges. Of similar importance are the ability to act quickly, secure flexible funding and avoid excessive bureaucratic encumbrances.
In many areas, rising tension between communities and minority groups who have become the easy targets to blame for spreading Covid-19, also need to be addressed through trust-building measures and communication campaigns aimed at dispelling unfounded rumours. Similar efforts are needed to address the erosion of trust towards international actors, as they are also blamed for spreading the virus or as they distance themselves and try to respond to needs remotely. The Ebola crisis demonstrated that rumour and conspiracy theory are powerful in communities in crisis and, alongside lack of trust, can jeopardise relief efforts and further undermine security. It also showed shows the harm that can arise from marginalising communities (confining relief work to externally-driven interventions) and reducing efforts to only those that contain the outbreak (seeming to ignore the broader array needs).
In short, learning from the past, promoting co-ordination and communication, and taking measures to build trust and accountability, can help limit the harm that Covid-19 will have in Asia’s conflict zones and, in turn, help prevent the further spread of the disease. There is also a need to ensure the attention and resources of the international community are retained and consolidated. This is necessary to avoid further undermining the resilience of these environments to future threats, including the escalation, protraction of recurrence of conflict.