How is COVID playing out in Fragile and Conflict Affected Settings?

April 7, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

I was on a fascinating Zoom check-in on this late last week, involving researchers of the Action for Empowerment and Accountability research programme (I’m on its advisory board). A4EA is focussing on Pakistan, Mozambique, Myanmar and Nigeria, but the conversation took in a few other places as well. Things that jumped out as new, or at least new angles on current discussions on Covid’s impact.

Love v Anger: I’m having an interesting discussion on this with some colleagues right now – should the response of campaigners and advocates be to change tone to love, as Kirsty McNeil argues, or to rage against the manifold failings of our leaders? This conversation made me think that love may be quite a European response, and may be temporary – more places are rapidly getting acrimonious like the USA. (Actually, it feels like the rage is rising in the UK as well). Researchers reported starting to see citizens standing up/resisting – ‘how can we stay in our homes, when there’s no electricity or power? When there are too many people?’ In Nigeria, women are gathering in front of their shops, protesting over the lack of prior warning of the shutdown. In Brazil, they are beating pots and pans and chanting anti-Bolsonaro slogans. There are already a lot of stories of corruption – government friends with snouts in the trough of Covid contracts in countries like India – that will only fan the flames.

Conflict hasn’t stopped: Northern Mozambique is increasingly out of control, due to a youth-led Islamist insurgency. Expect a militarized response in those zones, and Covid provides the perfect pretext for it to be very heavy-handed (a bit like 9/11 provided a green light for crackdowns around the world under the pretext of fighting terrorism).

The gender impact goes beyond Domestic Violence, the preponderance of women among frontline workers and the increased burden of caring for the sick: traditional ways of coping, for example through shared childcare, have become harder during lockdown; if everyone is washing their hands as per government advice, who do you think has to trek even more often to the tapstand?

Social Contracts are changing: in Pakistan, India and Brazil, sub-national governments (provinces/states like Sindh, Kerala or Rio) are doing better than national ones, which are more reluctant to take action (I’d be interested to hear why that might be). Firm action, at least in the early days of the pandemic, seems to earn more public trust than indecision or dismissal (Trump, Bolsonaro), so where there is an effective local response, we are seeing an emerging social contract between citizens and the local state, which could change the nature of post-crisis politics.

Changing profile of civil society organization: The crisis is leading to governments encouraging welfarist CSOs to get involved in things like public health education, or food distribution. More political CSOs risk getting squeezed out. In Mozambique, the crisis is widening the gulf between formal, donor-funded CSOs in Maputo, which are issuing standard calls for transparency and government action, and a population that has very different narratives about disease – eg blaming witchcraft or believing that the unpopular ruling party, Frelimo, is actually spreading disease. In the past, such popular narratives have led to the lynching of health workers during episodes of cholera.

Where’s the Private Sector? Businesses seem to have gone missing on a lot of these places, where Covid has become a conversation between the state, CSOs, non-state actors like religious leaders and the media (including social media).

My input was largely rehearsing some of the relevant points from my paper on Covid-19 as a critical juncture, so I won’t rehearse that. But one other point I noted – A4EA has in the past stressed the importance of psychology in understanding how empowerment and accountability play out in places characterized by fear and danger. It is really important that we remember that now – the psychological impact of the pandemic is going to be huge. Some of it will be fear of repression, police violence and domestic abuse, others will be less obvious – fear of contact with strangers (perhaps leading to ‘othering’ of marginalized groups), fear of physical contact and intimacy. There will be love and care too of course, but both are bound to shape how people go about framing claims to things like public services and engaging in public politics.

Really looking forward to see how this work progresses – reminds me of some of the great work IDS led on the impact of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.

Thanks to John Gaventa and Anu Joshi for comments on an earlier draft of this post.

April 7, 2020
Duncan Green