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“As if the war was not enough” – Stories of hardship and resilience in times of COVID-19: A report on the pandemic’s impact on the protection of people caught up in conflict

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EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

More than a year has passed since COVID-19 began its seemingly unstoppable spread across the globe. This report examines the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on people who live in parts of the world affected by armed conflict and other violence. It reviews some of the pandemic’s complex consequences for communities already struggling with multiple crises and threats to their lives and livelihoods. It also highlights emerging good practice from governments, humanitarian organizations and other stakeholders for alleviating hardship, as well as lessons learned that can inform future efforts to limit the spread of disease, care for the sick and mitigate the social and economic impact of pandemics on vulnerable communities, now and in the future.

The insights presented in this report transpire from the stories of eight people whom delegates of the ICRC met over the course of last year in countries where the ICRC maintains major humanitarian operations. Their personal experiences of the pandemic are as diverse as their origins and current circumstances. Through their accounts of how the virus has affected them and their families, we learn about their lives and surroundings:

  • A Yazidi family’s plight in Sinjar, Iraq, reflects the interplay between COVID-19 and displacement, the effect of the pandemic on livelihoods and camps for displaced people, the power of cash-based aid to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and why increasing access to social safety nets makes for good policy during a pandemic.

  • A story on life behind bars in the Philippines demonstrates how the pandemic affects detention conditions, family life, the pace of the judicial process and prison reform, and why it proves the truth of the old adage that prison health is public health.

  • Through a traditional birth attendant concerned about the health of her community in Borno state, Nigeria, we learn about managing water and resources, the nexus between humanitarian work and development, and the relation between international humanitarian law and pandemic preparedness.

  • A physician on the front lines of the pandemic in Yemen tells us about resilience in the face of death, the stigma attached to working with COVID-19 patients, violence against health care and the importance of trust between health-care providers and the communities they serve.

  • The story of a 12-year-old orphan returning home to the Central African Republic shows how COVID-19 has kept families apart, increased suspicion of foreigners, shuttered schools and put children at greater risk, but also how, with patience and perseverance, happy endings may prevail regardless.

  • The violent deaths of two civilians in Colombia illustrate the pandemic’s impact on communities living under the control of certain non-state armed groups, the need to protect civilians and respect international humanitarian law, and the importance of neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian action in hard-to-reach areas.

  • An Afghan man’s long wait for an asylum interview in Greece sheds light on the protection of migrants in camps and detention centres during the pandemic; access to state-run health-care and social protection systems; border closures, “push-backs” and the right to seek asylum under international law; and the need for solidarity in a global health crisis.

  • The grief of an Azerbaijani family over the death of a relative speaks to the impact of the pandemic on traditional burial rites and practices, protecting the dignity of the dead during an emergency, the global mental health crisis triggered by COVID-19 and the silent suffering of the families of people gone missing owing to conflict.

Much of what these people tell us holds true beyond their specific situations and the places they find themselves in. Their experiences stand for countless individuals like them who, with courage and resilience, are shouldering the double burden of war and disease while trying to secure a life in safety and dignity for themselves and their families.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also been an unprecedented stress test for those providing services to conflict-affected populations. Over the course of the past year, both governments and humanitarian organizations have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in terms of policies, practices and tools as they try to sustain programmes and services for communities in need and alleviate the worst effects of the pandemic. The testimonies in this report and what the ICRC has observed on the ground bring into focus five considerations that are relevant for governments, donors and the humanitarian, development and conflict-prevention communities, now and in future crises:

  1. Invest in understanding the multiple dimensions of vulnerability and people’s coping capacities in order to build an effective and holistic crisis response. Each in its own way, the stories in this report highlight just how individual and varied the knock-on effects of this pandemic can be depending on what risks a person faces, including security risks, and how they have coped with previous shocks arising from conflict and other violence. Without a granular understanding of people’s capacity for resilience, contingency plans and crisis-response measures aimed at countering the secondary effects of the pandemic may be ultimately ineffective or insufficiently responsive to socio-economic and mental health needs. Local expertise drawn from affected communities and those with direct access to them is needed to continuously enrich analysis carried out at the national and global levels. Ensuring rapid and unimpeded humanitarian access to vulnerable populations is also fundamental to avoiding gaps and blind spots in the response, particularly in places affected by armed conflict and other violence, where so many people are “off-grid” and hard for authorities to reach.

  2. Prioritize community engagement and trust-building before, during and after a crisis. The kaleidoscope of experiences presented in microcosm in this report would have been difficult to grasp without directly engaging with people affected by conflict. Community engagement is key not just to understanding vulnerabilities and coping capacities in all their complexity but also to ensuring trust during a crisis and preventing misinformation, rumours and violence against first responders. Community engagement cannot happen overnight, especially in conflict-affected areas, where relationships have been shaped by previous interactions and power dynamics between communities and weapon bearers, authorities, service providers and aid organizations. A sustained commitment by all stakeholders to community engagement and trust-building is what reaps rewards when a crisis hits.

  3. Strengthen health, water and sanitation services, and protect them at all times. Some of the stories in this report illustrate how the already poor state of health and water services in some places may have accelerated the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they also show how previous efforts to rehabilitate essential health, water and sanitation infrastructure and to build local service-delivery capacities pay dividends in a major emergency. Ensuring that these essential services remain afloat in areas affected by protracted conflict involves short- and long-term interventions and a combination of humanitarian and development expertise. This can reduce the so-called “conflict debt” that these areas accumulate and help prepare for and respond to future crises. But strengthening essential services in conflict-affected areas is not only a technical matter – it is a political and legal one too. It requires parties to conflicts and all those with influence over them to ensure that civilian infrastructure and those providing essential services are protected from attack at all times, in line with their responsibilities under international humanitarian law.

  4. Turn inclusive practices adopted during the pandemic into longer-lasting policies to address individual and systemic drivers of vulnerability. In response to the pandemic, various governments have put in place or expanded more-inclusive policies and innovative practices regarding asylum seekers, refugees, other migrants and the internally displaced as well as other people in need, for instance through expanded access to social safety nets and social protection systems. The increased use of non-custodial measures to decongest prisons and the use of technology to facilitate contact with family and the outside world serve as just two of many examples of progressive measures that were taken because of COVID-19 but address broader, systemic challenges as well. The ICRC encourages all stakeholders to translate the inclusive and innovative approaches taken ad hoc during the pandemic into longer-lasting policies to strengthen vulnerable groups’ resilience to health risks and social and economic hardship beyond this pandemic.

  5. Act locally, but think globally. The personal stories recounted in this report illustrate how closely interconnected the concerns and experiences are of communities in different parts of the world. Risks and vulnerabilities as well as coping strategies in a given country are shaped by transnational and global economic, commercial, financial and political interdependencies, and this needs to be factored into any response. Nowhere is this issue clearer than around the ongoing roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines. This report advocates for working collectively towards equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, not only to live up to ethical imperatives and to have a chance of overcoming the pandemic, but also to prevent further entrenchment of the systemic weaknesses that this crisis has laid bare around the world.