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The President's Take

A Year of COVID and Conflict: What the Pandemic Did and Didn’t Do

In his introduction to this month’s CrisisWatch, Interim President Richard Atwood reflects on the pandemic’s impact one year after Crisis Group published its first report on COVID-19 and conflict. 

One year ago, Crisis Group put out our first report on COVID-19 and conflict. We warned, as did others, about the pandemic’s potential repercussions for international peace and security.

Since then, we’ve published more than a dozen papers on the topic. They’ve looked at risks in Gaza, at how post-Soviet statelets along Russia’s periphery have coped, at the virus’s human toll in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia and at its impact on Thai and Nigerien politics, among other things.

A year on, we can take stock. What has the pandemic done, what hasn’t it done and what might it yet do?

Much of what we foresaw has happened in some form or another. Read any CrisisWatch edition from the past year, and you’ll find in many countries pandemic-related unrest due to popular fury at lockdowns or bungled responses. Some strongmen have seen in COVID-19 a chance to tighten their grip. Gangs in Latin America appear to have taken advantage of the pandemic to gain turf. Some war-torn areas have proven especially vulnerable to the virus, though patchy reporting makes assessing the precise toll hard and – whether due to demographics, weather, better policy or some mix thereof – many of the world’s most fragile places seem to have been spared its worst ravages. The pandemic further strained the already tense relations between Beijing and Washington while Donald Trump was in the White House; thus far, new U.S. President Joe Biden has been reluctant or unable to repair them.

Perhaps more striking, though, is what the pandemic has not done – especially how little it has affected the world’s major crises.

Few warring parties have seen in COVID-19 an imperative to stop fighting.

Few warring parties have seen in COVID-19 an imperative to stop fighting. Yemen’s conflict has escalated over the past year, with the Huthis now advancing on Marib, the Hadi government’s last northern stronghold, despite parts of the country seemingly quite badly hit by the disease. There’s talk of a ceasefire, but if that happens, it won’t be due to the virus. Fighting in the Sahel, Somalia and Mozambique has continued apace – the last looking particularly perilous this month. Islamist militants gained ground in all three places but their forward momentum predated the pandemic.

At the same time, the virus hasn’t derailed or even much influenced any peace talks. In Afghanistan, it does not appear to have swayed the government’s or the Taliban’s views on negotiations or the escalation in violence that has accompanied them. The recent, welcome diplomatic breakthrough in Libya was largely thanks to a stalemate in fighting, not the pandemic. That the ceasefire in Syria’s north west has more or less held owes more to Turkey’s determination to stop a Syrian regime offensive and Russia’s reluctance to anger Ankara than to any concern about disease’s spread among the region’s long-suffering residents.

Nor has the pandemic had much of a hand in big new crises. In Ethiopia, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed pushed back elections due to COVID-19, which played into the dispute between him and leaders of the northern Tigray region. But it would be hard to argue that the pandemic was a major factor in the long-brewing animosity that triggered today’s brutal war. Perhaps, in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan saw an opportunity in Western distraction, although Western powers had already neglected the conflict for years. More importantly, this war, too, was long in the making, given both sides' arms build-up and frustration with the moribund peace process. Myanmar’s unfolding tragedy has little to do with the virus, though it could make the humanitarian fallout all the worse.

As for the geopolitical rivalries that fuel some of these crises, they have appeared largely immune. True, the damage to U.S.-China relations was grave and the standoff between the two giants casts a long shadow over world affairs and multilateral diplomacy. But other rivalries – Russia vs. the West, Iran vs. the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Israel, the spat within the Gulf Cooperation Council – appeared unaffected by COVID-19, for good or ill. The terrible health crisis that gripped Iran in the pandemic’s early days led the United Arab Emirates, perhaps the Saudis' closest ally, to dispatch aid in a good-will gesture. But Riyadh itself chose not to do so and little for now suggests that Iran’s regional ambitions, or Saudi rejections of them, have dimmed.

The World Bank estimates the recession triggered by the pandemic could push up to 150 million additional people into extreme poverty.

If that’s the past year, what about the future? Hopefully, if vaccine rollouts proceed equitably – a big if – and can ward off new strains, there’s light at the end of the tunnel for public health. But the big threat will be economic.

The World Bank estimates the recession triggered by the pandemic, which is already graver than any since World War II, could push up to 150 million additional people into extreme poverty. Parts of the world – notably East Asia – could recover fast, but things look much gloomier in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America. The pandemic has tended to aggravate precisely the factors that were feeding discontent beforehand. In many countries, inequality is more extreme than ever. Living costs are rising. Public resources are scarcer. Middle classes are squeezed. Opportunities for young people, who’ve often sacrificed the most during lockdowns, are fewer. It’s easy to see populists thriving and storms ahead.

What to make of this mixed bag?

On one hand, it could have been worse. It’s not a bad thing that a pandemic that has torn apart lives, upended livelihoods and shut down much of the world hasn’t also stoked new wars. Maybe, too, it’s not surprising that COVID-19 hasn’t reinvigorated peacemaking. The reasons people and nations are at war tend to be deep-rooted. Conflicts would be easier to end if that weren’t the case. The pandemic simply hasn’t been enough to change warring parties’ calculations. It hasn’t stopped fighting, in other words, but for the most part it hasn’t started fighting either – not yet at least.

On the other hand, sure, wars are intractable, but the world’s failure to unite in the face of a common threat is a missed opportunity. With economic aftershocks looming, and much hinging on how fast people around the world get vaccines, we’ll need to do better if worse isn’t still to come.