COVID-19 in Fragile Settings: Ensuring a Conflict-Sensitive Response

August 10, 2020

Violent conflict often exacerbates the spread of infectious diseases, as seen in the recent resurgence of polio in Syria, cholera outbreaks in the conflict zones in Yemen, and the persistence of Ebola in insecure eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Between 2009 and 2017, in fact, there were 364 disease outbreaks in 108 refugee camps. Fragility and conflict reverse hard-won development gains and stunt opportunities for children, youth, and the poorest people. In the process, they deeply weaken health systems, leaving societies more vulnerable to disease outbreaks.

The global health emergency created by the coronavirus (COVID-19) is particularly concerning: it could become even more dire as it spreads to countries affected by fragility, conflict and violence (FCV). These countries are already seeing an increase in cases, and governments and international partners are taking unprecedented steps to save lives and mitigate the worst socio-economic impacts. As of late April 2020, the World Bank Group was already working to strengthen health systems and mitigate the pandemic’s risks  in nineteen of the most fragile settings across all developing regions, from the DRC, Mali and Niger, to Papua New Guinea, Haiti, Afghanistan, Yemen and the West Bank and Gaza.  Many more countries have requested support, and operations are being finalized quickly with three main aims during this unprecedented crisis:

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  • To help countries implement emergency health operations and strengthen economic resilience;
  • T0 protect the poorest and most vulnerable households and to support business; and
  • To save jobs.

The United Nations COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan aims to fight the virus in the world’s poorest countries, and address humanitarian needs of the most vulnerable people. At the same time, the United Nations COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund supports low- and middle-income countries to overcome the health and development crisis caused by the virus. In addition, the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund continues to provide timely and catalytic support to help prevent and mitigate conflict risks that may now be exacerbated by the pandemic.

Tackling COVID-19 is doubly hard in countries where social and economic conditions were already unstable — because of weak governance and state institutions, unequal access to services for vulnerable populations and, very often, community mistrust of government.  These countries may also face compounding challenges, including climate change shocks, forced displacement and food insecurity. It is important that countries’ immediate response and longer-term investments address these realities to avoid exacerbating existing sources of fragility and instead help build resilience, both to this crisis and future shocks.

The UN-World Bank joint study, Pathways for Peace: Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Conflict, as well as the recent World Bank Group Strategy for FCV, provide a set of critical principles that can help guide country-level response efforts in those challenging settings.