by Hilde Hardeman, Director of the European Commission’s Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI), Brussels
The EU launched a comprehensive response to the Covid-19 pandemic, focussing both on the needs at home and on the situation in partner countries, notably with our support for the COVAX mechanism (Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access) in close cooperation with the World Health Organization (WHO). Soon after the announcement of the pandemic in March 2020, it was clear that conflict-affected areas would face particular challenges. The EU Commission’s Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI) decided to focus its initial efforts on three priorities: first, helping those whom conflict had already rendered vulnerable; second, countering disinformation on the pandemic; and third, supporting the UN Secretary-General’s call for global ceasefires.
Inequalities and vulnerabilities increase
The impact of Covid-19 is devastating in many parts of the world, exacerbating inequalities and vulnerabilities and putting conflict-affected populations at increased risk of stigmatisation, exclusion, exploitation and violence. This is particularly true for refugees and migrants who often remain excluded from national health systems, and who, in addition to any traumas they may have faced in their places of origin or during their journey, often face xenophobia and stigmatisation.
Recent events in Bosnia and Herzegovina are one but certainly not the only example of growing tensions between host communities and migrants/refugees that further increase the risk of instability in an already fragile context.
In Latin America, the Covid-19 pandemic coincides with the largest refugee and migrant crisis the continent has ever seen. As many countries in the region closed their borders in response to the pandemic, thousands of refugees and migrants are stranded, often without access to basic services and protection. While there are many examples of solidarity among host populations, there are also worrying examples of the increase in the number of evictions from rental accommodation and forced closures of shelters. Gender violence is on the rise and criminal gangs are expanding their activities: recruiting, providing social services and taking control where state authorities fail to reach.
The EU provides assistance to both refugee and host communities to reduce suffering and tensions in an effort to reduce the risk of violence and conflict. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, activities to address the concerns of local communities are being supported. In Lebanon, public hospitals that serve both host communities and refugees have been supported with the aim of alleviating tensions between the two groups.
The fight against disinformation
The Covid-19 pandemic is not just a health crisis. It is a multi-dimensional crisis with impacts at social, economic and political levels. It challenges the cohesion and the resilience of states and societies. As the virus started to spread last year, we saw a parallel rise in disinformation around the pandemic. There were rumours and misinformation, but there was also deliberate disinformation and political propaganda aiming to create confusion and undermine collective trust in the responses that were taken. The World Health Organization referred to this trend as an “infodemic”.
While disinformation is as old as mankind, the magnitude and global scope of this “infodemic” seems unprecedented in terms of speed and scope. Disinformation is a cause of serious concern not only because it hampers effective public health responses, and risks therefore to cause loss of life, but also because it polarises opinions, creates divisions within societies and increases the risk of stigmatisation and conflict.
As the European Commission’s first crisis responder, we have been working with a number of organisations to promote reliable information and conflict-sensitive communication on the pandemic. This includes, for example, supporting journalists, fact checkers and media professionals in the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Central Asia. In Iraq, for instance, close to 1000 journalists have been trained on how to identify and debunk disinformation. They have worked closely with the ministries of health to stop the spread of erroneous information. In Latin America, a regional online platform called “Portalcheck” makes a series of tools, educational resources, news and tips available in Spanish and Portuguese. Similar resource hubs will soon be launched in other regions.
In many places, making sure that information reaches conflict-affected populations is challenging. For that reason, we have also supported the distribution of solar powered radios, for example in camps for internally displaced people in Burkina Faso. In other contexts, reliable information about Covid-19 is being made available through toll-free numbers accessible with a mobile phone.
The pandemic as a motivator for peace
Covid-19 can feed conflict by rendering affected populations even less visible and by emboldening belligerent forces to use the openings that the pandemic offers to weaken public institutions further. But the pandemic can also be the inflection point where warring partners realise they do have something in common: the need for the pandemic to end. On 23th March 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire to allow the focus to be on the fight against Covid-19. The EU strongly supported this appeal and in response, we geared mediation support in conflict-affected countries towards supporting the Secretary General’s call.
In Libya, a mediation support initiative facilitated the launch of a call for unity by a thousand leading figures from across the country to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. In Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia, the Service for Foreign Policy Instruments supports dialogue initiatives to reduce violence and tensions and to strengthen collaboration between conflict parties, communities and humanitarian actors to respond to Covid-19. These efforts have led to twelve humanitarian ceasefires, allowing the targeted distribution of hygiene materials and personal protective equipment to over 450,000 people in hard-to-reach areas, as well as reaching an estimated 3,7 million people in vulnerable communities with reliable, conflict-sensitive information campaigns via social media. The ceasefires – even if temporary in nature – made a concrete contribution to alleviating the pressure of conflict on communities, allowing them to seek and receive relief and information about the virus and how to prevent its spread. The trust our partners have gained by reaching out – sometimes as the first to do so – with information on Covid-19 will be crucial to sustaining their dialogue efforts as the pandemic evolves.
Thus, the threat of the pandemic has opened opportunities for dialogue. Afghanistan may serve as an example. There, the spread of the virus created an impetus for the Taliban to engage on the importance of avoiding violence against healthcare facilities. While it is by no means clear that this will result in an actual reduction of violence, the opening that is created by the threat of the pandemic should be used to build confidence and trust at community level, and to encourage armed groups to take part in intra-Afghan dialogue, which is needed to advance the Afghan peace process.
If some of the initiatives outlined here do lead to a better, more peaceful tomorrow, they would be the silver lining to the hardship that conflict and Covid-19 are still causing now.
has been Head of the European Commission’s Service for Foreign Policy Instruments (FPI) since 2017. She holds a PhD in Slavic Philology and History from the University of Leuven after studies in Stanford, Paris, Moscow and Amsterdam. Ms Hardeman has spent over twenty years working for the EU Commission, covering external relations and economic and competitiveness issues. Previously, she headed the Commission’s Units for Relations with Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus.