COVID-19 and the toxic politics of exploitation

3 April 2020 Louisa Waugh COVID-19 and the toxic politics of exploitation

We are all under siege. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, urgent action is needed to challenge the governments who are exploiting it for their own ends, and to address the dangers confronting the world’s most vulnerable people.

If the wealthiest and most resourced countries don’t step up to assist others, the consequences will ricochet across our world. Peacebuilding has an essential role to play in these dynamics. People living in fragile states, and those fleeing repression and violent conflict or migrating in search of work, will be hardest hit by this pandemic. As the world’s focus is rightly on stopping the spread of the virus and developing a vaccine, the global response can also help or hinder people’s efforts to bring about lasting peace and stability in many contexts.

COVID-19 response as a tool for peace or a driver of conflict?

Addressing people’s needs and overcoming political, social and economic inequalities in conflict-affected and fragile contexts is essential. While support for people dealing with the virus in these contexts needs to be global and multilateral - bringing together humanitarian organisations, governments and multilateral bodies to identify joint actions that save lives by transcending borders and divisions – it must directly impact the people and communities most affected, rather than disappear into an international system that desperately needs reform.

The political and economic decisions we take over the next few weeks will have massive long-term consequences. The United Nations’ call for a global ceasefire, already backed by 55 nations, the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis in Yemen (though not the US and UK), shows that this is a moment when opportunities for game-changing international interventions could flourish.

However, as governments focus on dealing with the domestic emergency, the risk that some will weaponise COVID-19 for political ends is growing. Community resilience is up against states imposing short-term emergency measures that could become the norm, within and outside the EU.  

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has already imposed what the Council of Europe has described as ‘an indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency’ that includes five-year prison terms for ‘dissidents’.

In Africa and the Middle East, states such as Algeria, Lebanon and Sudan have used the COVID-19 crisis to ban anti-government protests. Egypt’s military dictator Abdel Fattah El Sisi has ramped up repression of journalists. Israel, meanwhile, has been using the virus as an excuse to spy on its citizens using anti-terrorist software.  

Legitimate emergency measures to trace, detect, isolate and treat those with the virus must be distinguished from politically motivated surveillance and repression. This balance must be monitored, with transgressions called out by the international community, including the UN, global institutions and governments.

COVID-19 response: an opportunity for dialogue and trust-building

One of the stark lessons from the Ebola crisis was that the virus initially spread unchecked in some countries, due not only to fragile healthcare systems, but also because populations did not trust what their governments were telling them. Opportunities for dialogue must be integrated into multilateral COVID-19 responses to make them more effective in sharing vital information to combat the virus and to maximise their potential to build trust and confidence between people and authorities.

There is a lot of evidence that locally led peacebuilding initiatives can be incredibly effective, and indications that local civil society is stepping up across the world to deal with the immediate impact of the virus. In recent weeks, for example, Yemeni civil society has been acting as first responder, organising awareness campaigns on COVID19 and supporting vital healthcare responses.

Responding to the pandemic offers an opportunity for states to recognise the role played by civil society and use their virus response to improve trust through dialogue and collaboration. However, even as they deal with the immediate impact of the virus, local peacebuilding organisations will lose out if the global COVID-19 response diverts scant human and financial resources elsewhere. They will face further danger and disruption if governments miss this opportunity to engage with communities and shut down the space and funding for them to work safely, using the virus as an excuse to introduce heavy-handed tactics.  

Pausing violence and overcoming divisions in the Sahel

In Mali, after years of violent conflict, armed groups could exploit COVID-19 related social disorder, especially as existing health and social infrastructures are weak and chaotic. The Malian government has just stated its willingness to dialogue with several prominent armed groups. If internationally supported, this initiative, apparently supported by the majority of the Malian population, could not only help the country and the Sahel region resolve chronic conflict dynamics, but also better respond to COVID-19 which would potentially save countless lives.

France, its allies and the UN have invested heavily in counter-terrorism across the Sahel region in recent years. But these efforts have failed to address long-standing structural grievances such as access to land, and abuses by internationally backed national security forces have continued. Militarised international counter-terror operations have not defeated extremism in the Sahel, and the governments of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso have increasingly lost communities’ trust in the process. For these reasons, the UN Mission in Mali and other international players should support initiatives at all levels to deescalate and foster peace across the region.

Across a range of contexts where counter-terror operations are failing and those involved have run out of ideas, the global ceasefire call could be a watershed for pausing violence, suspending harmful military and security campaigns and developing broader strategies for peace. We can then begin to restore trust between citizens and states by addressing the issues that really matter to people. This includes through support for community-managed initiatives and local conflict resolution processes.  

Reinforcing the need for effective migration policies

Rapid action on the plight of forcibly displaced people and migrants is likewise urgent. The prospect of COVID-19 tearing through crowded refugee camps and detention centres with appalling conditions, in Libya and Greece, is terrifying. Who will ensure the $360 million just been pledged by the UN-backed government in Tripoli to fight the virus is used to improve conditions, including medical facilities, in Libyan detention centres?

Greece meanwhile needs international support to ensure thousands of refugees and migrants, including those stranded on Greek islands and between the Greece-Turkey borders, are protected. Cases of the virus have been reported on the isle of Lesbos. Greece is now rounding up hundreds of refugees and migrants to deport them. These are people whose rights have already been violated and ignored, and who have little access to virus-ready medical facilities.

In the new pandemic reality, ensuring safe and legal pathways and humanitarian corridors for migrants is even more vital. Leaving desperate people in the hands of smugglers, traffickers and organised criminals makes management of the pandemic harder if not impossible. Looking longer term, the economic shock from this pandemic will last for years, making the isolationist approach adopted by the EU more untenable.

Refugees and migrants who do manage to cross into Europe, legally or otherwise, risk being targeted by xenophobia and scapegoating fuelled by the rhetoric of populist politicians. Racist attacks against those perceived as migrants, and visible minorities, are rising in many contexts. Al-Jazeera has recently reported on how “some hardliners want to use the virus to kill minorities, as others spread hate and conspiracy.” Our overall response, including that of media editors, politicians and opinion shapers - should restore the case for principled cooperation and solidarity in the face of a global threat that reminds us of our shared human vulnerability and interdependence.

Redressing the balance: international cooperation as a building block for peace

The global economy that emerges from COVID-19 needs to be more structurally inclusive to ensure that economies ravaged by the downturn in retail at all levels can support their citizens. Otherwise we risk severe economic shocks for years to come that will increase inequalities and political instability. They will also potentially increase violent competition for access to and control of resources in fragile economies, and impact severely on natural resource management in already fragile environments. The World Bank has just flagged that countries ‘must act now’ to mitigate shocks of COVID-19 including serious impacts on poverty. But traditional structural adjustment models, usually imposed by richer nations on poorer ones, will have to shift to reflect these new economic realities.

The scale of the challenge before us is unprecedented in modern times: it demands a dynamic new model of multilateral cooperation, including health, humanitarian and peacebuilding responses that transcend borders around the world. Amidst the risk of losing hard-won rights and doubling down the pressure on vulnerable populations, the COVID-19 pandemic also presents an unprecedented opportunity to do things differently. An enlightened response, where the global recognises and supports the local, and where people’s health, security and prosperity are central priorities for national and international security policies.

Strategic interdependence and global solidarity are no longer just idealist notions, but survival strategies for us all. Unilateralism, division and repression will only frustrate global efforts to manage this pandemic and its consequences. The maintenance of global solidarity between peacebuilders, civil societies, humanitarians, politicians and multilateral agencies in support of health, human security and long-term peace, is the best way for us to begin the fight of our lives.


Photo: Detainees behind the fence at Amygdaleza detention centre, Greece, Feb 2015. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons).