By Jacob Starr – Contributor
It is difficult to understate the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic towards Western Europe and the US. Seemingly well-equipped modern healthcare systems are being critically tested and economies are faltering, as the spread of the disease has only been slowed through strict lockdown measures imposing restrictions on individual liberties unprecedented in Western liberal democracies.
However, these governments have distinct advantages regarding resource availability, authority over territory, organisational capacity, and comparatively peaceful political climates. Contrastingly, in Middle Eastern or African counties undermined by years of conflict and instability, such as Syria or Libya, these concepts are minimalistic and insufficient, or simply absent. This dynamic has provoked fears that the increasing spread of Covid-19 could have particularly devastating effects on these countries. Under a backdrop of conflict, the movement of military forces and refugees jeopardises efforts to contain the spread, whilst organisational and logistical processes are hampered by the reluctance of opposing factions to effectively cooperate.
Libya, internally divided between separate warring governments based in Tripoli and Tobruk since 2014, is in an inadequate position to face the pandemic. This political division, economic downturn, and breakdown of public trust in either government stifles any collective action against the outbreak. Worse still, military objectives have come before medical provision, symbolised by the shelling of Tripoli’s main hospital in April. A 2017 World Health Organisation report stated that there was an ‘acute shortage of lifesaving medicines and basic equipment and a debilitated primary healthcare network’. Libyan doctors have reported that further conflict has only worsened the situation, amidst distinct shortages of PPE, after vital imports into the country have failed to arrive at medical facilities.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan poses another troubling, though unique, case. Covid-19 entered Afghanistan in a context of delicate peace talks between the government and the Taliban, though somewhat overshadowed by increased Taliban attacks in recent weeks. Demands from the government to assist with policies to prevent the spread of Covid-19 complicate these matters and threaten to derail peace negotiations. Only extremely fragile forms of trust between societal factions remain after over 40 years of conflict, and resultingly, the Taliban refuse to accept a ceasefire, despite increasing reports of Covid-19 coming across the border from neighbouring Iran and a growing outbreak in Kabul.
However, there is tentative political will for both lasting peace and cooperation in combatting Covid-19. Promisingly, the Taliban has agreed to allow healthcare workers into rural areas under their control. Furthermore, healthcare, though often limited, is reaching rural communities. Stuart Simpson, International Organization for Migration’s Chief of Mission in Afghanistan, claims they are ‘providing training, personal protection equipment and other critical medical supplies for local health workers and supporting risk communication and community engagement in 25 provinces across 10,000 communities’, despite the incredible logistical difficulties regarding medical facilities and resource availability. If these measures can have effect, any cooperation during Covid-19 pandemic does provide a medium by which long-term peace between the Afghan government and the Taliban can be fostered. Yet the pandemic simultaneously threatens to undermine the previously developing relations between the two parties, should measures be viewed to impose an uneven burden on either party.
However, concerns are likely most pressing in Yemen, given the relentlessness of their humanitarian crisis. Famine threatens 10 million citizens, and adequate healthcare is in short supply after the overwhelming of the healthcare system by a cholera epidemic. Officially, at the time of writing, the official Aden-based government has reported three deaths, along with a handful of other cases, while the Houthis have reported one death. Worryingly, however, unreported cases within both areas of control are likely significantly greater. The World Health Organisation has expressed particular concern for the virus spreading through the Arabian country undetected, as limited testing capability has meant only 200 tests have thus far been completed. A Saudi-led coalition, supporting the official Yemeni government, has backed a ceasefire to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, but conflict against the Iranian-backed Houthis persists. This situation makes Yemen uniquely susceptible to the pandemic.
Optimistically, Syria should theoretically now be in a better position than Yemen, or as it would have been in previous years of the Syrian Civil War. President Assad’s government now has control of a significant proportion of the country, thanks in large part to Russian intervention of his behalf. Regardless, however, a decade of conflict has crippled its capabilities to deal with Covid-19 to the degree of relative success seen in politically stable, wealthier nations. The government has reported just 45 cases and three deaths from Covid-19, though, in similar fashion to Yemen, logistical and medical restraints dictate that calls for extensive testing programmes by the World Health Organisation routinely go unanswered by states tarnished by civil war, so these figures likely present misinterpretations of the facts on the ground.
Despite low case numbers, Assad has openly admitted these issues, stressing the possibility of ‘real catastrophe that exceeds our health and logistical abilities’. Furthermore, a lockdown had been implemented last month, but economic impacts of war and sanctions have prompted Assad to ease it and allow certain business to reopen. Similar economic discussions are undertaken in the UK, showing there is no fundamental difference in how pandemics impact countries, just that conditions in war-torn states like Syria inflict intensified challenges.
The competitive nature of geopolitics also poses further difficulties. Russia, Iran, the US, Israel, Turkey, and others all have vested interests in the outcome if Syria’s conflict. While they may outwardly present a willingness for cooperation in these unprecedent times, they will not accept the diminishing of their respective geopolitical positions as a result. More concerningly, these states are using the health crisis as an opportunity to exert influence whilst many stakeholders are preoccupied. This is exemplified by reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian proxy forces in eastern Syria, while Iran is distracted by its own devastating outbreak of Covid-19.
The precise rationale for why these developments in conflict zones should be understood and contemplated from a British perspective are twofold. Firstly, the reporting of the Covid-19 pandemic has, somewhat understandably, been overwhelmingly centred on the situation within the UK. Reporting on global developments has largely been limited to the US, Europe, or China, and has mostly been framed in a ‘what can we learn from them to help us?’ narrative. This merely domestic outlook towards a pandemic requiring a globalised strategy will ultimately prove futile, a sentiment Theresa May recently echoed.
Secondly, and more potently, the roots of these conflicts, and therefore the reasons behind vulnerability to the virus, are inseparable to historical consequences of imperialism and current geopolitical manoeuvring, of which the West in undoubtably culpable in. There is therefore an implicit moral element to instead adopting an approach that determines what more well-equipped countries can do to assist the global effort. Furthermore, and not coincidentally, Western states have clear advantages regarding access to medical and economic resources. Global structuring and redistribution will therefore prove vital.
Calls for a global ceasefire by UN Secretary General António Guterres have resonated across the globe, such as the cautious, while limited, movements towards cooperation with the Taliban in Afghanistan to combat Covid-19. Nevertheless, the political and organisational limitations of war-torn states mean their efforts are undermined by a quagmire of ethnic, religious, and geopolitical conflict. In sprit of global solidarity, this needs to be appreciated, and can provide perspective to what has hitherto been an undoubtedly Western-centric viewpoint of the global experience of this pandemic.