The World’s Conflicts Didn’t Take a Pandemic Break
The World’s Conflicts Didn’t Take a Pandemic Break
Op-Ed / Global 4 minutes

The World’s Conflicts Didn’t Take a Pandemic Break

It is now three years since United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an “immediate global ceasefire” in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On March 23, 2020, Guterres called on warring parties to “put armed conflict on lockdown” to allow health workers to fight the disease. Although always understood to be highly aspirational, the call created a rare glimmer of hope during the first months of the pandemic, as governments and armed groups in Colombia, the Philippines and elsewhere pledged to pause hostilities.

Today, the idea of a global cease-fire feels like a historical footnote from a very different time. The three years since Guterres made his proposal have been marked by a series of bloody conflicts. Most of the armed groups that initially expressed enthusiasm for the idea in March and April 2020 returned to hostilities within months. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, Ethiopia’s civil war from December 2020 to late last year and Russia’s all-out assault on Ukraine since February 2022 have collectively claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, although the exact figures are difficult to ascertain.

This does not mean that Guterres’ initial call for a cease-fire was a bad idea. Back in March 2020, the impact of a global pandemic on international peace and war was uncertain. The day after Guterres made his appeal, the International Crisis Group released a special briefing that sketched out the possible political and security risks and trends that might accompany the pandemic. It seemed possible that COVID-19 would hit conflict-affected regions, such as northwest Syria, especially hard and exacerbate tensions in divided societies. It was also conceivable that it would shock some combatants into slowing or suspending hostilities.

Studies of violence ... have found little correlation between the spread of COVID-19 and patterns in conflict.

What seemed harder to believe at that moment was that the pandemic would not have much impact on conflict trends at all. Yet studies of violence over the ensuing three years have found little correlation between the spread of COVID-19 and patterns in conflict. While public health data in conflict-affected countries are frequently unreliable, it seems fairly certain that there were major outbreaks of COVID-19 in places such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Myanmar. Yet, violence continued, and in some cases worsened, alongside the spread of the disease.

This does not mean that the pandemic had no impact on troubled states and communities. In Colombia, widespread public discontent over the government’s handling of the pandemic fueled a wave of protests in 2021. Armed groups in the country also used pandemic-related school closures as an opportunity to recruit child soldiers. A detailed study of data from African countries found clear signs that COVID-19 lockdowns were regularly associated with upticks of “repression events” by authorities, such as acts of police violence against protesters.

The pandemic also complicated international efforts to manage conflicts: By one estimate, the number of international aid workers in Kabul dropped from 1,000 to 300 in 2020, as expatriates left the country out of fear of a looming health emergency.

Yet in cases of intense conflict—such as Yemen and Ethiopia—the warring parties largely ignored the disease. This can partly be explained by the nature of COVID-19, which, while fast-moving and highly infectious, did not kill or disable enough of its victims to stop armies and rebel groups from fighting. In some warzones, COVID-19 was just one disease among many, and not necessarily the most threatening. For example, the World Health Organization has counted some 12,000 cases of COVID-19 in Yemen to date. That is surely a significant underestimate, but the country recorded over 200,000 cases of cholera in 2020 alone. While Yemen’s warring parties exploited the disease for propaganda purposes, each blaming the other side for failing to prevent its spread, the pandemic was not a game-changer for those locked in conflict.

Political actors have put their security interests before public health.

Even where the disease has had a greater impact, political actors have put their security interests before public health. In Myanmar, a surge of the Delta variant of the coronavirus overwhelmed the national health system in the aftermath of the military coup on Feb. 1, 2021. For much of the year, the U.N.’s then-envoy to the country, Christine Schraner Burgener, tried to coax the junta and civilian opposition to cooperate over managing the disease as a way to restore some confidence between the two sides. Rather than cooperate, the military deliberately targeted doctors and nurses whom they accused of playing a leading role in opposition to the coup.

If the COVID-19 cease-fire idea only had a brief impact on ongoing conflicts, it ironically acted as a lightning rod for friction among the major powers at the United Nations. When France and Tunisia tabled a U.N. Security Council resolution endorsing the concept, China and the U.S. held up its adoption for months by bickering over a reference to the WHO, which the Trump administration accused of covering up Beijing’s mishandling of the disease. If the cease-fire idea was meant to appeal to and further global solidarity, it ultimately helped highlight strategic divisions.

Some commentators have argued that COVID-19 may have indirectly contributed to further deepening strategic rifts. For instance, there has been speculation that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch an all-out war on Ukraine was at least partially a product of having isolated himself during the first years of the pandemic. In this period, he was surrounded by a small circle of hawkish officials and cut off from more moderate advisers. This is hard to prove, though. Putin had after all first taken steps to dismember Ukraine in 2014, when he seized Crimea.

Regardless, it is hard to deny that the world has emerged from the first three years of the pandemic more divided and more dangerous than it was in March 2020—for reasons both related and unrelated to the pandemic. Guterres’ global cease-fire proposal faded into history depressingly rapidly. Yet three years on, despite its limited impact, it is hard not to feel a little nostalgia for the brief moment of optimism it created. After all, if the U.N. secretary-general won’t call for world peace now and again, who will?

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