Conflict – Global

Weaponizing the pandemic: The impact of COVID-19 in conflict situations

Miriam Puttick

At the outset of the pandemic, the rapid spread of COVID-19 from country to country raised immediate alarm over the catastrophic impact it could have in conflict-affected states, where civilians already suffering from the ravages of war would be left defenceless against a deadly and highly contagious virus.

These concerns led UN Secretary-General António Guterres, on 23 March 2020, to issue an unprecedented call for a global ceasefire, announcing that it was time ‘to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives’. He called on armed actors around the globe to immediately pause hostilities in order to open opportunities for the passage of aid and enable humanitarian actors to mount a coordinated response to the virus.

The Secretary-General’s urgent plea points to the reality that in many conflict situations, protracted fighting between armed actors has had devastating effects on public health. The erosion of humanitarian norms in several current conflicts has led to repeated attacks on health care facilities and personnel over the years, leaving them weakened and ill-prepared to deal with a public health emergency on the scale of a pandemic. In Syria, according to the non-governmental organization (NGO) Physicians for Human Rights, as of March 2021 there have been at least 599 attacks on hospitals and other health care facilities since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, mostly carried out by pro-government forces, as well as 930 killings of medical professionals. This violence has also had a knock-on effect in forcing many others to flee the country, with as many as 70 per cent of medical workers now believed to have left Syria. In Yemen, meanwhile, barely half of its hospitals and clinics are operational, and about a fifth of the country’s districts do not have a single doctor.

The rationale for the Secretary-General’s ceasefire proposal was compelling and critical – but for the most part, the call went unheeded. While armed actors in a few conflict situations announced limited ceasefire agreements in response to the UN’s call, these did not lead to any significant decrease in levels of fighting at the global level. Available data suggests that at least 21,347 people were killed in conflict between 1 July and 12 September 2020, including more than 5,800 civilians who were directly targeted. In some cases, hostilities actually intensified despite the presence of ceasefires. In Yemen, although the Saudi-led coalition announced a unilateral ceasefire on 8 April, it was seen as a media ploy by the rival Houthi armed group, and attacks continued on all sides. According to the Yemen Data Project, between 9 and 30 April alone, the Saudi-led coalition carried out at least 83 air raids and up to 356 individual strikes. In Libya, fighting also escalated between March and April, with the Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA) ramping up its shelling operations on Tripoli and Government of National Accord (GNA) forces making advances into new areas.

In April 2020, using COVID-19 as a pretext, Houthi forces forcibly expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants from al-Ghar, a migrant settlement in Saada governorate, destroying over 300 tents and houses in the process.

Despite the continuation of hostilities, it is difficult to tell what the consequences have been for the pandemic. Available epidemiological data shows that COVID-19 case counts and mortality levels are lower in many conflict-affected states in comparison to wealthier countries in Europe and North America, but these figures are almost certainly underestimated due to lack of testing capacity and sometimes deliberate under-reporting of infection levels. In Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, satellite imagery of burial sites, as well as anecdotal evidence from gravediggers, suggest abnormally high death rates compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Yet, it is impossible to determine how many of these deaths are directly Covid-induced, and how many are the result of other factors. For civilians in conflict-affected states, the most deleterious effects of the pandemic may lie in the social and economic devastation it has caused, rather than in the consequences of infection itself. The global recession caused by the pandemic has compounded the destructive effects of conflict by restricting earning opportunities, disrupting the flow of commodities, driving food prices up and exacerbating poverty. The UN predicts that the number of people facing food insecurity will have doubled to 270 million in eight countries by the end of 2021. Yemen, which was already on the brink of famine due to the Saudi-imposed blockade of its borders, has seen a 20 per cent fall in remittances, an importance source of income for many Yemenis. In Syria, the outbreak of COVID-19 has also exacerbated the country’s economic distress, with more than 80 per cent of the population now living below the poverty line.

These developments have hit already vulnerable groups, such as women, children, minorities and displaced persons, the hardest. For example, members of Yemen’s Muhamasheen minority, already suffering from caste-based discrimination and poverty, are often ineligible for food distribution and other forms of humanitarian aid since they fall outside of tribal structures. Anecdotal reports suggest that many Muhamasheen have also been denied service by health care workers due to fears of COVID-19. In Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, nearly 40 per cent of registered internally displaced persons (IDPs) are Yezidis, Christians or members of other minorities. Many cannot return to their areas due to the destruction caused by the conflict with ISIS and are living in overcrowded camps with poor sanitation and limited access to health care.

Available data suggests that at least 21,347 people were killed in conflict between 1 July and 12 September 2020, including more than 5,800 civilians who were directly targeted.

Another consequence of the pandemic has been a significant drop in global humanitarian aid flows. Many of the countries mentioned are highly reliant on international aid, a need which has only increased as a result of the pandemic. Yet, donor countries have redirected their budgets to their domestic pandemic responses, reducing the amounts they spend on international aid. In March 2021, the UK government slashed its yearly aid to Yemen nearly in half (£87m compared to £164m the previous year), stating that ‘recent global challenges’ had ‘meant a difficult financial context for us all’.

Making matters worse, armed actors have frequently intercepted humanitarian aid intended for COVID-19 response, using it as leverage for political gain. In Syria, the government has prevented vital supplies from reaching opposition-held areas and has also blocked humanitarian workers and supplies from passing into north-east Syria in order to undermine the authority of the Kurdish-led administration in the region. In Yemen, the Houthis have repeatedly blocked World Health Organization (WHO) shipments arriving in the port of Hodeidah in order to use them as leverage in other negotiations. Similarly, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -backed Southern Transitional Council, which controls the city of Aden, has prevented the internationally recognized government from accessing COVID-19 equipment sent by the WHO in order to bolster its own status as the de facto authority in the city. The fragmentation of territorial control in conflicts such as these, with overlapping jurisdictions held by different armed actors, adds a further layer of complexity for civilians struggling to access much-needed aid.

These patterns point to a larger trend that has characterized the response to the virus in conflict situations: the weaponization of the pandemic for political gain. In Syria, the government has attempted to distract from its own ineffectual response to the virus by blaming the pandemic on the US while praising the response of its allies Russia, Iran and China. In Yemen, the Houthis have scapegoated African migrants and international aid workers as carriers of the virus, while inflating their own success in controlling infection levels in the areas under their control. In April 2020, using COVID-19 as a pretext, Houthi forces forcibly expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants from al-Ghar, a migrant settlement in Saada governorate, destroying over 300 tents and houses in the process. The Houthis have also used the pandemic to bolster recruitment to their forces, deploying slogans such as: ‘It is better to die a martyr in heroic battles than to die at home from the coronavirus.’

The refusal of armed actors to heed the call for a global ceasefire thus represents a missed opportunity to reach common ground and alter the course of many conflicts worldwide. The full impact of these decisions on civilians remains to be seen. While the continuation of hostilities has exacerbated the day-to-day suffering of civilians, the ineffectual and politicized response to the pandemic has also eroded the legitimacy of government and non-state armed actors alike. The resulting breakdown of social trust, which is recognized as a major driver of conflict, could continue to fuel violence even after the end of the pandemic.


Photo: Muhamasheen women sit together in Sana’a, Yemen. Credit: EPA / YAHYA ARHAB.