Expert Speak Health Express
Published on Mar 19, 2020
Corona and conflict – A match made in hell

The Coronavirus pandemic that started in the district of Wuhan in China has rapidly spread to 150 countries, territories and areas and has infected more than 2,00,000 people as of March 19 2020.  The virus has been rapidly extending its influence across the globe. This rampant spread of the virus has made curbing its influence a top priority for governments and found common ground across the political spectrum. Thus, with a seemingly unified threat perception of this virus among emergent and developed nations, the call for a cohesive strategy to deal with the pandemic is being discussed vociferously.

That being said, the potential risks and implications of this virus entering conflict zones like Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen and the Kashmir Valley seems to be relatively sidelined. With many of these areas in close proximity to  massively affected nations like Iran and relatively newer affected countries like Egypt and Turkey,  understanding the ability of conflict zones to deal with the pandemic is imperative for realising a cohesive counter strategy. While countries like Syria and Yemen claim to be unaffected, proximate nations like Afghanistan, Turkey and Pakistan have seen a steady increase in the number of cases. The narrow testing protocols in conflict zones like Syria leads people to have a skeptical outlook towards their claim of being unaffected. Thus, the imminent threat of the virus breaking out in all the aforementioned conflict zones must be considered as a very real and looming possibility.

One possible explanation for comparatively less attention to how the virus will impact conflict zones is that powerful global players like the US, China and countries in the European Union are victims of this pandemic. Thus, the coverage and reportage on the pandemic seems to be in service of understanding how it will affect the lives of these so called “first world nations”. With most developed and developing nations affected by this pandemic looking inward and allocating its persuasive influence towards protecting their borders and people, the lives of the disenfranchised and oppressed seem to be evading the public eye. This tendency to look inward in times of catastrophe underscores some core concerns of humanitarian workers in Syria regarding the virus and its implication on rehabilitation efforts. Joel Bassoul, media manager for Save the Children fears the potential reduction in funding for humanitarian efforts by developed nations like France and the US coupled with hesitation to send foreign aid workers to implement reconstruction programmes due to the travel restriction as being debilitating to the rehabilitation efforts in conflict zones. This calls for a contextually sensitive analysis of the capabilities of conflict zones in dealing with patients of coronavirus.

Social Distancing and its limited scope in conflict zones 

When deliberating upon the scope of containing the Coronavirus in conflict zones, it is necessary to understand the political and social turmoil underscoring the lives of these people. This socio-demographic context of life amidst violence renders the seemingly Euro-centric idea of social distancing to curb the virus as not feasible in war zones like Syria. As noted by Joel Bassoul, Syria was confronted with a massive crisis of displacement of families due to the three months of relentless drone strikes carried out by Turkey and the United States. Due to this rise in IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), refugee camps in Syria have become overcrowded and social distancing in such an environment seems like an ideal that cannot be realised. Additionally, as revealed in a study by Harvard University, the size of refugee camps in Idlib, a province in northern Syria, has increased by a mammoth 177 percent, forcing 3 to 4 refugee families to live together in a confined space. Thus, appropriate redressal mechanisms for the virus that take these unfortunate realities of political turmoil and upheaval into account are the need of the hour.

Poor Public Health Infrastructure in Conflict zones 

Another way in which the case of conflict zones excarberates the negative potentialities of the virus relates to the poor public health infrastructure of these areas. The two conflict-ridden countries most susceptible to a Coronavirus outbreak are Syria and Yemen due to their close proximity with Iran. The Global Health Security Index, which rated the health security apparatus of 195 countries worldwide in October 2019 indicated ominous signs of what would happen if a global pandemic were to emerge. Syria ranked 194 (second worst) while Yemen ranked 179th in the “early detection and reporting of epidemics with potential international concern”. According to Syrian cardiologist Dr Ihsan Eidi, the premiere Syrian hospital has only one ventilator and a lack of medical personnel with specialised capabilities in dealing with this pandemic. Furthermore, the war in Syria has led to more than half of the doctors from the region to leave in prospects of a better future. Claudia Gazzini, Senior Libya analyst at the International Crisis Group mirrors Dr Eidi’s concerns and deems the health system in Libya as abysmal and unable to cope with the virus when it inevitably hits the war torn region.

Political feuds between rival regimes also exacerbate these existing obstacles to effective health care in conflict zones. For instance, Libya is confronted with two governments at war with each other. The UN-backed government in Tripoli is at war with warlord Khalifa Haftar and according to Gazzini, this political feud will pose as an impediment to a consensus on how best to disseminate health care services in the region. Yemen, too, faces a conflict between the Iran-backed Houthi rebels and the government, making the prospects of dealing with the virus more grim.

Desensitisation to catastrophe

Besides the aforementioned operational difficulties, conflict zones are also likely to face some psychological dispositions of victims of trauma, thereby downplaying the veracity of the pandemic. Evolutionary psychologists have examined the cognitive basis of perceiving danger extensively in the last few decades. Cues to perceive danger have evolved to possess  high learnability, memorability, and teachability due to its benefits in helping humankind survive. However, notions of danger and what constitutes this construct are not normative or universal. There are certainly some physical cues embedded in the reality of a situation that incite fear. That being said, there is also a subjective dimension to danger perception that is a social construction rooted in experience. In conflict zones wherein danger to life, property and sanity are an everyday struggle accompanied by tangible and visceral manifestations of danger, the fear of a virus with comparatively less tangible danger cues may lead to some downplaying the threat  of the pandemic. For instance, a Libyan national, in response to questions about Coronavirus said, Corona is too scared to come to Libya because the war intimidates the virus.” This idea that victims of war have lived with danger and hence codify catastrophe in different ways than those living in liberal war-free democracies is an important one to acknowledge. Thus, along with bolstering operational facilities to deal with the virus, finding ways to catastrophise the virus in ways that permeate the minds of victims of war is needed.

With Kashmir also reporting cases of the virus, calls relaxing the internet restrictions that have been imposed since the revocation of Article 370 is also gaining steam. However, while 2G internet and fixed line internet services for essential institutions like hospitals shall be reinstated, the Indian government has extended the ban on high speed 3G and 4G networks to March 26th, 2020. Along with curbs on the internet posing as an impediment to effective social distancing, many of the other  contextual obstacles- both operational and psychological, in dealing with the virus in conflict zones like Syria and Yemen also apply to Kashmir.  Will fragmented internet services and longstanding experience of political violence in Kashmir  further exacerbate the effects of the virus? How will social distancing pan out in the midst of plans to set up deradicalisation camps in the Valley?

While combating the virus needs a holistic approach, no cohesive strategy can ignore conflict and war-torn areas. Alternate strategies of combating the virus conducive to the unique socio-demographic context of each conflict zone must be explored. With an already overwhelming burden on developed countries in dealing with this pandemic, the plight of conflict zones may seem only worthy of an afterthought. However, the spread of the virus may not differentiate between the relative importance of nations to the international order in the same way that countries do.

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Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer

Prithvi Iyer was a Research Assistant at Observer Research Foundation Mumbai. His research interests include understanding the mental health implications of political conflict the role ...

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