Peace and war in epidemics

Khaled Hanafi, Saturday 18 Jul 2020

Epidemics can, but do not always, give rise to opportunities for peace among warring groups


In his novel Blindness, Portuguese author José Saramago presents the violence that takes place in a city that has lost its humanity during an epidemic.

The only woman unaffected by the disease, which causes blindness, accompanies her physician husband into quarantine, making her a symbol of solidarity with others until they have recovered their sight. This message of fellow feeling is not merely applicable to literary fiction, but is also an exploration of reality.

There is a disparity in human behaviour towards epidemics. Since these threaten human life without discrimination, they can help to reshape the ways of thinking and calculation of individuals and groups whether regarding themselves or others. They may also hold cooperative or conflictual implications.

European colonists in Africa and Asia who provided medical assistance to fight epidemics and infectious diseases set up relationships of power, domination, and imperialist expansion, for example. The impacts of epidemics are also evident in domestic armed conflicts since they can either motivate rivals to put aside their differences and de-escalate clashes in the face of a joint humanitarian threat, or they can increase the chasm between them and allow conflicts to continue to rage.

Which is the most likely scenario in a conflict situation? While the Covid-19 pandemic prompted some armed groups around the globe to accept the ceasefire called for by the UN on 23 March in order to help to fight the pandemic, the truce did not last for very long, and the violence erupted once again when fighters ignored warnings about the seriousness of the coronavirus. The Norwegian Refugee Council, an NGO, has estimated that 660,000 people fled their homes in conflict zones between the UN call in March and 15 May, mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

The dual relationship that may emerge during a pandemic could pave the way to peace or fuel further fighting depending on three key factors that are rooted in the premise that conflict or peaceful interactions are determined by material and non-material factors.

The first is the epidemic’s impact on the combat capacity of the warring parties, because it will lead them to make a rational choice when deciding to fight or to make peace by calculating costs and benefits. The second is the psychological impact of epidemics on rival groups, since ideas and understandings about them could change minds and thus behaviour. The third is whether outside parties decide to be involved or use the conditions of the epidemic to promote peace and transform the conflict.


These refer to the capacities and tools, whether political, human, military, economic, social, or other, that rivals have to express their disagreements through behaviour calculated to achieve their different goals and interests.

Without these, a conflict would be latent and non-explicit, and such capacities are usually impacted by variables present in conflict environments. For example, one side may suffer from political or military rifts, or shortages of economic resources, or fragile social bonds. An epidemic will become an added variable that impacts the capabilities of the warring parties since it can hamper the mobilisation of human resources in combat zones due to the need to take safety measures and implement social quarantining. It also limits military spending in favour of civilian, and foreign assistance can also be impacted if foreign sponsors are also dealing with a pandemic.

Such factors can become even more important because epidemics can further undermine the fragility of conflict states and zones due to weak infrastructure and healthcare provision, as well as the existence of other crises such as those caused by refugees and displaced populations.

This has been seen in several countries in the Middle East, among them Libya, Syria, and Yemen, where almost half of the healthcare system is out of service. History shows that serious damage to combat capabilities due to epidemics can also lead to defeat or hinder adversaries. Leprosy and malaria hindered Alexander the Great’s campaign in India in the fourth century BC by killing many soldiers. Yellow Fever blocked Napoleon Bonaparte’s expansionism in the early 19th century when his army was infected in the Caribbean.

As a result, an epidemic can lead to adversaries reassessing their management of a conflict, cutting their losses and increasing their gains through three main options. There can be a temporary truce due to an epidemic through a ceasefire and the suspension of military operations for humanitarian reasons, this then allowing relief groups to provide medical services.

This was seen in several war zones in the 1990s and early 2000s, for example in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, the DRC, Bosnia, and elsewhere. Some armed groups also responded to the UN call for a ceasefire at least at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, including in Yemen, Cameroon, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Colombia and other countries. Even more radical and violent groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan were responsive.

The reason why such adversaries agree to a temporary truce during an epidemic is due to several factors, including protecting their human, military, and economic resources from attrition. They may need to redirect military resources towards civilian duties during an outbreak so they do not lose their legitimacy among supporters. Some armed groups may even use the opportunities an epidemic presents to bolster their resources by transferring civilian duties to humanitarian organisations, sometimes pilfering medical supplies to support their combat capabilities. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has begun an investigation into accusations that the Houthi rebels in Yemen stole Covid-19-related medical supplies, for example.

Moreover, adversaries may go beyond a pragmatic truce during an epidemic and negotiate a peace deal, or international mediators may work towards transforming a truce into a better peace deal. As a result, major disasters whether natural or otherwise, can constitute propitious moments for negotiations through what is known as “crisis diplomacy”. For example, the damage caused by the tsunami in Aceh in Indonesia in 2004 paved the way for the government to begin talks with the separatist movement that concluded in a peace agreement in Helsinki in 2005.

The absence of international pressures or interventions can prevent a truce evolving into a peace opportunity, however. One of the reasons why many armed groups reneged on the UN call for a Covid-19 ceasefire was the failure of the UN Security Council to pass a resolution on the matter owing to quarrels with the United States, which refused to see the WHO mentioned in the text of any UN resolution. Washington also threatened to veto any such resolution because of its quarrels with China. The work of international mediators, especially China’s work in Myanmar, was suspended because of the focus on combating the pandemic back home, which meant that ceasefire opportunities were lost and the fighting began to escalate.

The third possibility is that the fighting maximises benefits for armed groups if their combat capacities are not impacted by an epidemic, or if an outbreak is in specific areas, or if safety measures are taken to prevent infections among fighters. One side might find that the threat of an epidemic is an ideal opportunity for a military victory that would not have been possible otherwise. This has been the case in Libya, where the fighting did not stop but in fact escalated in the first half of 2020, including for reasons related to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The impacts of this in Libya have been limited when compared to the West, and the foreign sponsors of the Libyan conflict took advantage of the fact that the international community was largely distracted with combating the pandemic to change the balance of power on the ground in favour of their proxies. Turkey supplied militias working for the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli with weapons and mercenaries, for example.

Terrorist groups can benefit from a government’s preoccupation with a pandemic by intensifying the fighting and recruiting new members to their ranks by taking advantage of the economic repercussions of epidemics. Some believe that the isolation of these groups also gives them an advantage because they are less likely to be exposed to infection, which means the combat capabilities of the different adversaries can be thrown off balance.

This has been most obvious among the terrorist groups in Africa’s Sahel region. Abu Bakr Al-Sheikawi, the leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group in West Africa, mocked the coronavirus outbreak in a recording made in April, for example, claiming that it was “divine punishment” for governments in the region. The virus had not infected his men, he said, because “they pray, cut the hands off thieves, and punish adultery.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in more terrorist attacks, including the Boko Haram attack in March on a military base in Chad, one of the worst in the history of the country, which killed 92 people. There have also been similar attacks in Niger and Nigeria.


Epidemics have psychological impacts that are mostly triggered by the fear of infection, and these can make societies more prone to rumours, urban legends, and conspiracy theories.

They can, however, also bridge the gap between the individual and society to create a greater sense of collective solidarity. Overall, the fear of epidemics tends to be more prevalent in areas of conflict.

Although both epidemics and armed conflicts pose existential threats, there is a difference between fighting a visible enemy and knowing that death is always a possibility as a result of an invisible one. Epidemics are unknown enemies that can lead to deaths because of a lack of knowledge or poor handling. The difference between a visible enemy and an invisible one can affect the ways in which fears are experienced, because one can control and predict the first scenario but not the second.

According to US psychologist Jennifer Lerner, fears in epidemics tend to be related to uncertainties, anticipations, and expected risks, which explains why there was more of a panic about the Covid-19 pandemic than there has been about the risks of civil wars, since there is no cure or vaccine that can control the virus. The psychological impacts of epidemics on the mindsets, perceptions, and feelings of combatants about the possibility of peace or further conflict can differ in degrees of pessimism or optimism, as follows.

First, there may be a tendency towards pessimism and a renewed motivation towards peace. Amid an atmosphere of fear in an epidemic, the parties to the conflict may feel pessimistic about the future, often because of a large number of possible deaths among soldiers due to disease, fewer resources, the inability of the health sector to respond to the epidemic, possible cuts in military spending, or economic impacts.

This pessimistic outlook can be reinforced by looking at contemporary contexts, such as are suggested by asking the question of if the coronavirus killed more than 100,000 within three months from March to May this year in the US, the most powerful country in the world with an advanced healthcare sector, how can countries and societies suffering ferocious conflicts with fragile healthcare systems survive it?

A pessimistic mindset could lead adversaries to look for a truce or negotiations. Perhaps some armed groups welcomed the UN call for a ceasefire at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic because they expected the worst, especially at the start of the outbreak.

Second, there may be optimism and continued fighting. This occurs when there are factors to offset any pessimism and perhaps make fighters optimistic about the outcome of the epidemic. For example, armed groups may find that it does not damage their ability to continue the fighting, or that the outbreak is spreading in some areas but not others, or that the age groups most affected are not members of fighting ranks.

A combination of these factors could be the reason why adversaries in the Middle East and the African Sahel have continued fighting, and global ceasefire efforts there have failed. The number of deaths and infections as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic remain low in some war zones, according to published figures. By 12 June, Libya had recorded 393 infects and five deaths, Syria had recorded 164 infections and six deaths, and Yemen had recorded 591 infections and 136 deaths.

Other factors could also feed the fearlessness some adversaries feel when it comes to Covid-19, since its health impacts have been more severe in the developed North than the developing South. The virus also afflicts older people rather than younger ones, who ironically form the majority in the war zones in Africa and the Middle East.

People’s ignorance in conflict zones can make it easier to spread conspiracy theories during an epidemic, which could mean armed groups may not be rational in dealing with outbreaks. They may continue fighting or exploit conspiracy theories by claiming that their rivals are responsible for an epidemic, for example.

Abdel-Malik Al-Houthi, the leader of the Houthi Movement in Yemen, has blamed Saudi Arabia and the US for spreading Covid-19, claiming it is a biological conspiracy and that “dying on the battlefield is better than dying from the virus.” His narrative is similar to other conspiracy theories around the world, since even the US and China are at loggerheads about the pandemic. US President Donald Trump has described Covid-19 as a “Chinese virus”, while Beijing has accused Washington of “bio-engineering” the virus.

This conspiratorial emphasis may help the parties obscure the impacts of the epidemic in a way similar to what happened during the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 when European governments were not transparent about the pandemic out of concerns that information could be manipulated in the chaos after World War I.


While the capabilities and mindsets of armed rivals in epidemics galvanise them towards peace or further conflict, the response of outside players can also play a critical role in making peace a more viable option.

This stems from a shift in the conflict-resolution literature towards linking health and peace-building. For example, the concept of “conflict transformation” views crises as opportunities to rebuild peaceful relations. When rivals cooperate in mutually dependent activities, this can lead to changes in their perceptions and ideas, which can then address the structural reasons for the armed conflict to begin with.

The WHO and various NGOs can play a key role in boosting cooperation in the healthcare sector among rival groups to motivate them towards finding peace. Enemies can agree to cooperate on health issues because these serve their interests, for example, since their enemy’s problems can also infect them. Cooperating on healthcare can also change the perceptions of the parties because it can create the room for trust that can pave the way to peace. Addressing the fragility of infrastructure, including in healthcare, can be a starting point to addressing the structural roots of conflicts.

Such concepts are embodied in the Health as a Bridge for Peace (HBP) initiative launched by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) in 1984 to help reduce conflicts in Central America and Panama.

The PAHO worked to bring about “days of tranquility” between the government of El Salvador and rebel groups between 1985 and 1991, for example, and to provide polio and other vaccinations to residents in rebel areas. Although it is difficult to make a direct link between these initiatives and the arrival of peace in this country in the early 1990s, they did at least create an atmosphere of trust and cooperation, especially since medical teams from the rebel groups participated in health campaigns.

Since then, it has been impossible to separate humanitarian aid from peace-building efforts, and in the 1990s the WHO adopted HBP methods in countries including Mozambique, Bosnia, Sri Lanka, and Angola. But foreign responses to transforming epidemics into an opportunity for peace are not always possible, since, as mentioned above, humanitarian truces for medical reasons can be used to fuel fighting later. Global pressure can be ineffective, and medical relief teams can be targeted if they become witnesses to violations. The international NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) came under attack and was forced to withdraw from Yemen and Afghanistan, for example.

Some communities in conflict zones also refuse to cooperate with medical missions because in their minds disease means weakness and the enemy is using it to weaken them. This happened in the Ebola virus outbreak in the DRC some years ago. There may also be concerns about discrimination during an epidemic, such as when Spanish Flu ingrained apartheid in South Africa after black soldiers returned there after World War I, and the Natives (Urban Areas) Act was issued in 1923 segregating South African Blacks, Whites, and Coloureds.

Even today, Muslims in the Indian state of Gujarat have been rumoured by anti-Muslim elements in India to be responsible for the spread of Covid-19.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 16 July, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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