- Those who are hopeful of a more peaceful post-COVID-19 world, usually give the example of the end of the conflict in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami devastated Indonesia.
- We should remember that COVID-19 is not a tsunami. This crisis is much more global in nature, partisan in character, and longer in duration.
As the COVID-19 crises grips the world, it has not only brought massive economic and health problems to countries, but has also led to serious worries over global peace and security.
The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has already warned the international community about the likely increase in social unrest and violent conflicts and has appealed to the world for an immediate global ceasefire during the pandemic. A month has passed, but there is no sign of a global truce. In some conflicts, particularly in Syria, Iraq, Cameroon, Colombia, Myanmar, Philippines and South Sudan, one of the parties has shown its interest to stop the fighting, but the offer has not been accepted by its adversaries. These one-party offers are in no way to be taken as a willingness for a peaceful resolution of the conflicts as in most cases, the one making the truce offer is the weaker party; while in other cases, the one initiating it is seeking a face-saver to quit the war, even as the other parties are encouraged to win it.
Those who are hopeful of a more peaceful post-COVID-19 world, usually give the example of the end of the conflict in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami devastated Indonesia. We should remember that COVID-19 is not a tsunami. This crisis is much more global in nature, partisan in character, and longer in duration. The tsunami had affected only some countries in Southeast Asia and the impact was short and sudden. The tsunami was a natural disaster, while COVID-19 is being seen as a man-made one, which paves the way for looking for a scapegoat.
Most importantly, the global power structure is not the same as it used to be in 2004. The United States has abdicated its leadership role of the free world and France wants to fill in that gap but lacks power and punch. Moreover, there is a much more powerful challenger under the leadership of China, supported by Russia.
The tsunami might have brought a pause to the conflict in Aceh, but it failed to do so in Sri Lanka. Rather, the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka resulted in a full-fledged war in 2009, resulting in massive loss of life and a military victory for one party. Though the COVID-19 pandemic has already taken a huge toll in the US and Iran, the US continues to fortify its military hardware in Iraq and prepares for another round of military confrontation with Iran. India and Pakistan are battling coronavirus and at the same time exchanging deadly fire at the Line of Control in Kashmir. More than a dozen rangers have been killed in the deadliest attack by a Rwandan rebel group in the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It is thus naïve to believe that a pandemic can bring a pause or end to on-going conflicts around the world. Moreover, as we have seen before, particularly in some South Asian countries, when the state fails to support its citizens at the time of a crisis like an earthquake or flood, ultra-religious militant groups usually capture that space. Economic crisis, social instability and uncertainty over power are likely to lead to more upheavals, state collapses, terrorism and violence. In this context, it is important to evaluate the likelihood of promoting peaceful and inclusive societies as one of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), which the world had committed itself to in 2015, to fulfil in the year 2030.
The SDG 16 expressly aims at significant reduction in all forms of violence and related death rates everywhere. In recent years, though the number of active violent conflicts have increased, the number of fatalities have decreased since 2014, with Syria primarily accounting for this change. Though there is very little hope of these violent conflicts going away soon, the coronavirus pandemic has created a major challenge for on-going peacekeeping operations globally. Not only do peacekeepers need to be kept safe from the pandemic, but also contributing member-states are reluctant to expose their forces to military operations. While peacekeeping efforts are restricted under the current global crisis, there is no restriction on rebel groups and other non-state actors to mobilise themselves and inflict violence.
Moreover, flow of illegal finances is doing immense harm to global development, as illegal arms flow is doing to global peace. The preoccupation of countries and international organisations to combat the virus will keep their focus away from stopping the flow of illegal arms and finances. Moreover, a crisis of this huge proportion helps all forms of organised crime to prosper due to the restrictions imposed on the free movement of goods and people.
Violence against children
Violence in all forms against children is also likely to increase due to COVID-19 as the economic crisis will inflict job losses on parents and that may force children to leave school. School closure for a longer period may increase hunger, malnutrition, child marriage and child labour. Staying at home for a long duration with extended family members may even expose children to sexual exploitation.
The pandemic has also made migrant workers, refugees and minorities more vulnerable and they have been increasingly blamed in many countries as those responsible for spreading coronavirus. Economic crisis and job losses have also forced some developed countries like the US to restrict migration policies, favouring their own citizens. In countries like India, where there was a process in place of denying citizenship to a large number of the minority populations and branding them as illegal immigrants before the COVID-19 crisis, that discrimination will further be intensified as minorities are accused of spreading coronavirus.
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COVID-19 has unfortunately divided the world further, some countries blame other countries, some societies blame other races or religions or migrants or social groups. As powerless groups are being blamed and targeted as the one spreading the virus, they are being exposed to various forms of violence. Special and extra-ordinary laws are being implemented at the national level to address the COVID-19 crisis. These laws are targeted at a certain region and/or group, in the name of containing the crisis and isolating the virus. Growing nationalism to protect one’s citizens from the pandemic also adversely affects the adherence to universal rule of law and hinders equal access to justice for all.
The COVID-19 crisis has raised serious doubts over the equitable participation of developing countries in the institutions of global governance. The pandemic has left the world divided much more than before, and the economic crisis is likely to increase the wealth and power gaps between developing and developed worlds further. A strong global consensus is needed for broadening and strengthening the role of developing countries. Unfortunately, there was no consensus before COVID-19 and now with COVID-19 it has only got worse.
A pandemic like this provides extra powers to authorities and the urgency overrides their accountability. The COVID-19 crisis has not only led to the decline of democracy, bringing the electoral process to a halt, but in many countries, it has also legitimised the policies on restricting basic fundamental rights of expression and assembly. Large gatherings have been banned, limiting the possibility of democratic protests. Increased state surveillance in the name of containing the pandemic has intruded into personal space of people. COVID-19 has not only helped the on-going global trend of decline in democracy, but it has also assisted authoritarian leaders in grabbing more power for themselves.
Overall, the image of the post-COVID-19 world is gloomy as it could be. Global peace looks more distant and inclusive societies have become rarer. There is an exigent need of a wise and compassionate leadership at the global level now, who can lead and guide the countries out of this unprecedented crisis of our lifetime.
Ashok Swain is a professor of peace and conflict research at Uppsala University, Sweden.