‘World’s conflict zones at greater risk from corona’

NEW DELHI: The global outbreak of Covid-19 has the potential to wreak havoc in fragile states, trigger widespread unrest and severely test international crisis management systems, says the International Crisis Group (ICG) in a report that points to seven trends that could define a post-Covid-19 world.
The report says the economic impact of restricting movement for months on end is likely to be devastating. “Lifting restrictions prematurely could risk new spikes in infections and require a return to isolation measures, further compounding the disease’s economic and political impact and requiring further injections of liquidity and fiscal stimulus by governments around the world,” it says.
The think-tank, specialising on international conflict, flagged seven areas of concern, primary among them being that people of conflict-affected countries – whether those in war or suffering its after-effects – are likely to be especially vulnerable to the outbreak of the disease. Libya, Venezuela, Iran and Gaza, could all see spike. Besides difficulties in getting aid workers to the people at the right time, the deep distrust of governments make it impossible to reach services to the affected. “Security obstacles are similarly liable to hamper the Covid-19 response in places where hostilities continue. … The areas of active conflict at highest immediate risk of Covid-19 outbreak may be north-western Syria, around the besieged enclave of Idlib, and Yemen,” says the report.
ICG says the disease could “weaken the capacity of international institutions to serve conflict-affected areas. WHO and other international officials fear that restrictions associated with the disease will impede humanitarian supply chains”. For instance, the disease could affect crucial Afghan peace talks, planned as a follow-up to the February agreement between the US and the Taliban.
Covid-19 could place great stress on societies and political systems, creating the potential for new outbreaks of violence, ICG observes. The pandemic, for instance, “precipitated a decline in anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong”.
“Early signs of social disorder already can be seen. In Ukraine, protesters attacked buses carrying Ukrainian evacuees from Wuhan, China, in response to allegations that some were carrying the disease. Prison-breaks have been reported in Venezuela, Brazil and Italy, with inmates reacting violently to new restrictions …,” The report states adding that governments that have close trading ties with China, especially some in Africa, are feeling the pain of the slowdown emanating from the Wuhan outbreak.
The disease could also tempt political elites to exploit the crisis for their own ends — “to solidify power at home or pursue their interests abroad”.
Some leaders, ICG observes, may also see Covid-19 as cover to embark on destabilising foreign adventures, whether to deflect domestic discontent or because they sense they will face little pushback amid the global health crisis.
“A spate of attacks against US targets by Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Iraq may well be part of a pre-existing effort by Tehran to push the US out of the Middle East.”
China, the report says, “after having to cope with the consequences of the initial outbreak, its early and costly decision to hold back information, and its own uneven response, and having sought at times to blame the US by waging an irresponsible misinformation campaign, now sees in the health crisis an opportunity to gain influence over other states through humanitarian gestures”.
However, the group sees rays of hope, of rivals coming together during the crisis — UAE sending relief to Iran, for instance.

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