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The pandemic has reshaped conflicts around the world. Here’s what got worse.

New research identifies specific areas of concern, as covid-19 aggravates the effect of conflicts

- July 20, 2021

The covid-19 pandemic has devastated lives and livelihoods globally since it began 16 months ago. More than 4 million people have died, and the virus has stretched health-care systems in high– and low-income countries to the brink. The number of people living in extreme poverty is rising for the first time in two decades.

While equitable vaccine distribution worldwide will be crucial to containing the virus, the international community faces another big challenge: responding to the pandemic’s effect on conflict and instability. Research that tallies incidents of violence around the world gives some clues, but leaves an incomplete picture of the complex ways the pandemic is shaping conflict.

A study we conducted finds covid-19 — and measures to contain it — are aggravating underlying drivers of conflict by diminishing trust in government, exacerbating economic hardship and disrupting social cohesion. We gained these insights through in-person semi-structured interviews and participatory workshops with more than 600 men and women conducted between January and March 2021 across multiple locations in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Nigeria. Here’s what we found.

The pandemic has undermined trust in government

Interviewees report a pervasive feeling that governments didn’t do enough to blunt the social and economic consequences of the pandemic. Declining tax revenue, restrictions on movement and the need to direct resources into public health have forced some governments to cut public services like education and social assistance, and curb their engagement with communities.

Colombia’s protesters want human rights reforms. The country’s human rights agency may not be much help.

The pandemic thus decreased the supply of government services while simultaneously increasing demand for them. This sense of abandonment, along with revelations of fraud and mismanagement in government distribution of covid-related relief, has reinforced the perception of many Afghans, Colombians and Nigerians that their governments are inept or corrupt.

The rise in anti-government protests in Colombia, Nigeria and other countries illustrates this growing dissatisfaction. The growing sense of grievances during the pandemic has stoked conflict risks by providing armed groups and criminal organizations the opportunity to expand their influence.

Economic hardships have deepened

The shutdown of businesses and schools, border closures, movement restrictions and service disruptions due to covid-19 have led to a surge in unemployment, food insecurity and socioeconomic strains.

The resulting loss of income — and with it, social status — have encouraged people to join or collaborate with armed groups. In Afghanistan, this helped expand recruitment into insurgent organizations. As one study participant in Kandahar said, “people became jobless because of covid-19 and lockdown; [insurgents] used this to their advantage by encouraging people to join their groups. They have promised people that they will provide financial aid if they join.”

In Colombia and Nigeria, there has been an uptick in criminal gang activity and banditry as people have shifted their livelihood strategies toward illicit economies, which have remained relatively stable during the pandemic. One study participant in Catatumbo, Colombia, explained “[illicit crops] were the only agricultural sector that did not stop … they offered an employment option that other businesses did not.”

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The rise in criminality and insecurity during covid-19 also boosted fear and uncertainty among conflicting groups, amplifying the risk of conflict between communities. In Nigeria, pandemic-related food insecurity and movement restrictions intensified long-standing clashes between farmers and herders over land use — for example, by herders shifting seasonal migration patterns closer to farmland.

Social cohesion is at risk

Fear of contracting covid-19, restrictions on gatherings and differing adherence to those restrictions have had deleterious effects on social relations. Respondents in Afghanistan, for instance, described how a reduction in social interactions at mosques, weddings and other important traditions undermined community cohesion.

In all three countries, the pandemic also created tensions within families and groups. Increased time spent at home — and multiple household members being out of work or school — escalated tensions over mounting economic and social hardships. These hardships, and the strategies needed to cope with them, often challenged gender norms and roles and probably contributed to rising rates of domestic violence.

The economic consequences of the pandemic also increased demands for sharing resources within communities, but such requests were more likely to be denied due to widespread scarcity. According to one nongovernmental organization leader in Plateau State, Nigeria, “people stopped assisting each other. … This brought about a reduction in unity … people were scared to give out what they have, as one does not know when lockdown will end.”

Scarcity of basic resources influenced broader conflict dynamics in two ways. First, the pandemic eroded preexisting bases for social cooperation — how people ordinarily share resources and reciprocate for help — and opened up new lines of conflict. Second, economic hardship and social tensions prompted some women and youths to abandon their homes or engage in high-risk coping mechanisms, increasing their vulnerability to recruitment by human and drug traffickers, gangs and other armed groups.

How to integrate conflict prevention into pandemic recovery

Recent research suggests the coronavirus has had compounding effects on fragility. The testimonies of local communities and mapping of covid-conflict pathways captured in our research provide early warning signs of the potential for new, evolving and worsening conflicts.

Professors: Check out TMC’s expanding list of classroom topic guides.

Prioritizing conflict prevention as part of pandemic recovery would require political commitment, international cooperation and resources to back up pledges. Some ways to do this include, for example, fully implementing the Global Fragility Act, a bipartisan effort signed into law in December 2019 that calls for all parts of the U.S. government to coordinate strategies to prevent conflict and focuses U.S. foreign assistance to reduce violence in fragile countries. Other measures include meeting the 40 percent spike in global humanitarian needs; and expanding long-term investment in human development and economic growth, which is crucial to building communities’ resilience to shocks and disasters.

Studies show that international assistance can help reduce the risk of conflict in the wake of external shocks. Even when the pandemic is over, international assistance would mitigate the lingering political, economic and social consequences that threaten both human security and international stability.

Mayesha Alam, who holds a PhD in political science from Yale University, is senior adviser for research and strategy at Mercy Corps. She is the author of “Women and Transitional Justice” (Palgrave Macmillan 2014) and co-author of “Women and Gender Perspectives in the Military” (Georgetown University Press 2019).

Adam Lichtenheld (@aglichtenheld), who holds a PhD in political science from UC Berkeley, is senior researcher on peace and conflict at Mercy Corps. His research has been published in International Organization and Economics & Politics.

Ryan Sheely (@ryanmsheely), who holds a PhD in political science from Yale University, is director of research on conflict and governance at Mercy Corps. His research has been published in Comparative Political Studies, World Development, and Social Science Quarterly.