While some opinion makers have referred to COVID-19 as an equalizer – affecting all countries and nations across the globe – it is clear that the pandemic is not a testament to equality. Fragile situations and conflict-affected areas will bear the brunt as the health crisis collides with existing political, economic and societal vulnerabilities. Exposure to infectious diseases has been shown to increase the risk of armed conflict and some believe the COVID-19 pandemic will be no different. It is expected to generate new as well as exacerbate several existing conflicts.
As the world holds its breath waiting for a vaccine, some public health approaches and pandemic response measures have been characterized as conflict-inducing. Physical distancing and quarantine measures may reduce social cohesion and when eventually available, the vaccine could be unequally distributed.
The effect of conflict and fragility on COVID-19: Private sector considerations
The inability to address conflict and fragility as we fight the pandemic will hinder the efforts to minimize transmissions. Countries that experience fragility or conflict struggle to respond to COVID-19 as access to basic services – including health care – is limited or even non-existent.
For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo where millions of people have been displaced due to violence, the majority now live in makeshift camps and urban areas that provide poor sanitation, reducing human well-being and threating public health. This makes them especially vulnerable to COVID-19. While public health concerns should be at the core of COVID-19 response and recovery, we must ensure that other needs do not overtake the health needs. It is for this reason that the private sector should also consider if and how their COVID-19 work addresses conflict or fragility – or feeds it, even if unintentionally.
As a starting point, like all other actors, private sector networks need to acknowledge COVID-19 as a multidimensional multiplier of threats that can worsen structural inequalities. Understanding the root causes of fragility, conflict or instability will help map out how the pandemic affects the country and its people. As the networks continue to carry out activities alongside governments, the UN system and civil society, it is also important to assess the conflict sensitivity of their programmatic work. Are we sure that our actions as a private sector network do no harm? Networks can go even further in thinking how they could address the conflict/peace dynamics in the country. Contributions to peace could include, for example, strengthening social cohesion, fostering public-private partnerships to build trust and addressing the needs of the most vulnerable. As unemployment, for example, can trigger instability in some regions, training the youth and women to increase their employability and promoting decent work among companies could be practical ways for private sector networks to contribute to more peaceful societies.
It is particularly important in fragile situations and conflict affected areas to align shorter-term pandemic response efforts with longer-term peace and development questions. CBi is also exploring these issues, supporting private sector networks who are interested in making intentional and meaningful contributions to stability and health as well as addressing broader socio-economic impacts of COVID-19.
Working together to address the direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19 is not just a social and humanitarian imperative, but it can also help us build resilience and create a more solid foundation for peace in conflict countries and beyond.