The COVID-19 pandemic unquestionably presents an era-defining challenge to public health and the global economy. Its political consequences, both short- and long-term, are less well understood.
The global outbreak has the potential to wreak havoc in fragile states, trigger widespread unrest and severely test international crisis management systems. Its implications are especially serious for those caught in the midst of conflict if, as seems likely, the disease disrupts humanitarian aid flows, limits peace operations and postpones or distracts conflict parties from nascent as well as ongoing efforts at diplomacy. Unscrupulous leaders may exploit the pandemic to advance their objectives in ways that exacerbate domestic or international crises – cracking down on dissent at home or escalating conflicts with rival states – on the assumption that they will get away with it while the world is otherwise occupied. COVID-19 has fuelled geopolitical friction, with the U.S. blaming China for the disease while Beijing tries to win friends by offering aid to affected countries, exacerbating existing great-power tensions that complicate cooperation on crisis management.
It is not yet clear when and where the virus will hit hardest, and how economic, social and political factors may converge to spark or aggravate crises. Nor is it guaranteed that the pandemic’s consequences will be entirely or uniformly negative for peace and security. Natural disasters have sometimes resulted in the diminution of conflicts, as rival parties have had to work together, or at least maintain calm, to focus on preserving and rebuilding their societies. There have been a few signs of governments trying to ease political tensions in the shadow of COVID-19 with, for example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Kuwait offering Iran – centre of one of the worst initial outbreaks outside China – humanitarian assistance. If the pandemic is likely to worsen some crises internationally, it may also create windows to improve others.
The coming months will be acutely risky, with the U.S. and European countries focusing on the domestic impact of COVID-19 just as the disease is likely to spread to poor and war-affected countries. With the exception of Iran, in its first phase COVID-19 mainly affected states – including China, South Korea and Italy – that had resources to manage the problem, albeit unevenly and at the cost of severe strains on their health systems and economies. To date, there have been fewer reported cases in countries with weaker health systems, lower state capability or significant internal conflict, where consequences of an outbreak could be overwhelming.
That is of little solace, however. The low numbers are almost certainly a function of insufficient testing or of a delay between the virus’s onset and its manifestation. Confirmed case numbers are ticking up in fragile parts of the Arab world and Africa. If countries struggle to put in place social distancing or other measures to stop the virus’s spread, or delay doing so, they could see spikes of cases like those now overwhelming parts of Europe, but with far fewer emergency care facilities available to save lives. The suffering that would cause is hard to overstate. If the disease spreads in densely packed urban centres in fragile states, it may be virtually impossible to control. The dramatic economic slowdown already under way will disrupt trade flows and create unemployment that will do damage at levels that are hard to forecast and grim to contemplate. A recession could take a particularly heavy toll on fragile states where there is greatest potential for unrest and conflict.
All governments face hard choices about how to manage the virus. Countries from the Schengen area to Sudan have already imposed border restrictions. Many are placing partial or blanket bans on public gatherings or insisting that citizens shelter at home. These are necessary but also costly measures, especially given projections that the pandemic could continue for well over a year until a vaccine becomes available. The economic impact of restricting movement for months on end is likely to be devastating. Lifting restrictions prematurely could risk new spikes in infections and require a return to isolation measures, further compounding the disease’s economic and political impact and requiring further injections of liquidity and fiscal stimulus by governments around the world.
These are universal problems, but as an organisation focusing on early warning and conflict prevention, Crisis Group is especially concerned with places where the global health challenge intersects with wars or political conditions – such as weak institutions, communal tensions, lack of trust in leaders and inter-state rivalries – that could give rise to new crises or exacerbate existing ones. We also hope to identify cases where the disease could, with effective diplomacy, stimulate reductions in tensions. This briefing, the first in a series of Crisis Group publications on COVID-19 and its effects on the conflict landscape, draws primarily from the input of our analysts across the globe, and identifies seven trends to watch during the pandemic.