COVID-19 in Conflict Zones: A positive Role for the Private Sector

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As the novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, continues to spread rampantly across the globe, very few countries remain unaffected. Western States – particularly the US, Italy, Spain and the UK – have been the hardest hit. While we witness some of the world’s most advanced countries struggle to gain control of such a dire situation, it cannot help but elicit the question: how do countries embroiled in conflict stand a chance in the fight against COVID-19?

In recent weeks, we have seen the first cases emerge in a number of conflict-affected States, which should be a major cause for concern among the international community. Not only does COVID-19 have the potential to heighten tensions and exacerbate violence if not managed effectively, a number of existing conditions make such States even more vulnerable in the event of a mass outbreak. In conflict zones, healthcare systems are barely functional; hospitals – if not destroyed – are poorly equipped, there are widespread shortages of doctors and protective gear, and populations are already exposed to severe health threats such as malnutrition, cholera, HIV and malaria. In addition, conflict has forced millions of people around the globe into overcrowded refugee camps, where basic hygiene and health practices are often non-existent. Social distancing in these environments is nearly impossible.

A forced lockdown to combat the spread of COVID-19 among conflict-ridden communities would endanger human life on an even greater scale. Many depend on informal economies for work, and the ability to access local markets to buy and sell basic necessities can often mean the difference between a daily meal or starvation. Large queues for food and water, which many rely on for survival, would not be conducive to eliminating the spread of COVID-19, leaving many faced with an impossible choice: starve or risk contracting and transmitting the deadly virus. A mass outbreak of COVID-19 would also be catastrophic for economies already acutely damaged as a result of protracted conflict.

Weak governance and power vacuums are often products of years of conflict and instability. When a State’s central authority is unable to offer adequate protection to its citizens, communal defences against a potential COVID-19 outbreak are severely undermined. In such contexts, private sector companies are far better positioned to offer key protections to local employees and communities. In light of the continued spread of COVID-19, private companies therefore have important business and humanitarian responsibilities. A number of responsible practices should be swiftly implemented to ensure that vulnerable populations are protected to every extent practicable.

First and foremost, to ensure the health and safety of local employees, it is important for companies to regularly communicate updates about the nature and spread of the virus so that employees understand the risks and how to manage them. In Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar District, home to the world’s largest refugee settlement, an internet ban has been in place since September 2019, depriving Rohingya refugees from accessing important information about COVID-19. As a result, fear is growing as unreliable information spreads throughout refugee camps and populations remain cut off from the outside world. A lack of awareness of the seriousness of the virus leaves an already vulnerable population further exposed to a mass outbreak. In conflict zones, communities cannot defend themselves against something they don’t know about. Private companies should therefore endeavour to ensure its employees and the local community have access to up-to-date information regarding COVID-19.

By the same token, it is critical that companies communicate health, hygiene and safety best practices to employees and educate them on ways to protect themselves from contracting the virus. This includes the importance of hand washing, covering the mouth, and maintaining distance from others as is feasibly possible. Infections in conflict zones, including Syria and Yemen, have spiked in recent weeks. Already among the most dire humanitarian situations in the world, a mass COVID-19 outbreak would completely overwhelm and strain already scarce resources in these environments. Hospitals would not be able to absorb the demand for treatment, there are few to no ventilators, and health systems devastated by years of conflict have limited curative capacity. Private companies operating in such environments therefore have a critical responsibility and role to play in educating employees and the communities within which they operate about the importance of adhering to health and safety regulations to combat the virus.

It must also be noted that companies operating in conflict zones often maintain a unique degree of influence, which could be used to lobby and pressure conflict parties to agree to a humanitarian ceasefire. On 25 March 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for an “immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world.” A temporary halt in fighting to allow for increased focus on combatting a COVID-19 outbreak will enable conflict States to direct available resources towards treating patients that have contracted the virus and preventing its continued spread. Additionally, a temporary ceasefire could yield a unique opportunity for companies to encourage parties to return to the negotiating table. Private companies should capitalize on virus-prevention efforts to build momentum around improved humanitarian access and renewed efforts for peace, in order to assist States in fulfilling Responsibility to Protect (R2P) obligations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Should COVID-19 temporarily halt business operations in conflict zones, private companies should also strive to provide continued assistance to employees that are forced out of work. This may be in the form of monetary donations, the provision of medical or food supplies, or facilitating access to humanitarian agencies and hospitals. Such relief could be lifesaving to those who rely on basic wages to provide food and medicine for their families. It will also support the overall stabilization of communities in crisis and the eventual return of normal operations and business activities.

Given the global nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, the responsibility to protect vulnerable populations at high risk of contracting the virus must go beyond merely the State. Rather the responsibility must reside with all stakeholders and include, particularly, companies operating in conflict zones. The international community should also turn an increased focus towards R2P and atrocity prevention to prevent conflict parties from taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to weaken human rights protections. COVID-19 does not respect borders or boundaries. Never before has it been more apparent that R2P is a global collective responsibility.

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Ellen Chambers is an Advocacy Writer at the International Institute for Human Security, focusing on the Responsibility to Protect. The International Insitute for Human Security is a peacebuilding NGO focused on knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer using a virtual platform. Prior to this, she served for three years as a Research Specialist at Squire Patton Boggs in Washington, DC, providing assistance to foreign government clients on matters of international humanitarian law, conflict, and human rights. She previously held roles at the Public International Law and Policy Group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Habibie Center. Ellen holds a Master of Arts in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University's School of International Service, and a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Lynn University.