It’s Not Just About Health: Four Lessons From Ebola for the COVID-19 Response in Conflict-Affected Countries

19 May 2020   ·   Charline Burton, Eoin O’Leary

COVID-19 is not the first health crisis to hit conflict-affected countries: Germany can learn valuable lessons from Search for Common Ground’s response to Ebola epidemics. Berlin should support civil society in violence prevention and trust-building measures, provide adequate training for security actors, and ensure the meaningful inclusion of local communities.

As the COVID-19 pandemic takes hold in conflict-affected countries, the public health crisis will intersect with inequality, weak governance, and mistrust in authorities. This will complicate immediate health responses, trigger tensions and exacerbate existing conflict dynamics. At the same time, a shared crisis like COVID-19 can create openings for new collaboration across dividing lines.

To benefit from such peace dividends, it is important that Germany includes a stabilisation element in its medium-term response to the crisis and its support for recovery in crisis-affected countries. Germany also has an important role to play in supporting a ‘whole of society’ approach to the global COVID-19 response.

Search for Common Ground (Search) has been a global leader in conflict transformation for nearly 40 years. Search has played a leading role in responding to the Ebola epidemics and their secondary impacts in West Africa and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). There are four key lessons from this work on Ebola and other public health crises that are of particular relevance for the German Federal Government as it formulates its response to the impact of COVID-19 in conflict-affected states.

1. Mitigate Mistrust Vis-à-Vis the Authorities by Supporting Conflict-Sensitive Responses to COVID-19

The initial responses to the Ebola crises in DRC and West Africa, led by national authorities and international agencies, were often designed with little attention to local conflict dynamics or public opinion. Health and security actors were seen as outsiders by communities experiencing the stress of the disease: health workers in Guinea faced weekly attacks from communities unwilling to grant them access. Access to reliable health information is also a challenge, particularly for women and minority groups, whose experience of marginalisation can mean lower access to official information and mistrust in such information when they do have access.

Poorly handled public health interventions can worsen relations between authorities and communities in ways which spill over beyond the health crisis. During the Ebola epidemic, communities in northern Sierra Leone believed they were targeted by government measures as ‘payback’ for voting for the opposition. When elections were postponed in North Kivu (DRC), in part due to Ebola concerns, many disenfranchised voters saw this as politicisation of the epidemic by the ruling party.

In particular, a ‘security-first’ approach to enforcing public health measures risks putting police and military into contact with stressed populations for which they are not prepared. Insufficient training of security actors in conflict de-escalation and gender and cultural sensitivities was a persistent gap across Ebola responses. In places where relationships between security forces and civilians are already poor, this can drive future insecurity. Peacebuilding approaches, such as Search’s work in DRC to train security actors and promote community engagement, can help address these challenges.

To address this, Germany should:

  • support COVID-19 responses that are conflict- and gender-sensitive, including through the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development’s “Corona-Sofortprogramm;
  • support civil society-led confidence-building measures and participatory responses to bridge trust and access barriers that hamper health and humanitarian response;
  • incorporate a stabilisation perspective in its response and recovery support, in alignment with measures already announced by partners including under the EU’s Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace and the United States’ Supplemental Appropriations Act;
  • support local and civilian-led enforcement of health measures where possible and apply lessons learned from its experience with security forces training to COVID-19 contexts.

2. Maintain Support for Social Cohesion and the Prevention of Violence Against Women

The heightened stress of a deadly and invisible threat like a virus and wide disruption to normal life can create divisions within and among communities, bring simmering divisions to the surface, and trigger hate speech or violence. These are exacerbated by reduced interactions between divided groups as schools, places of worship, and markets are closed.

Stigma against groups associated in popular narratives with the spread of Ebola has been common in both West Africa and DRC, harming social cohesion within and across communities. Where this intersects with other inequalities, including gender-inequality, the impact is worse: in DRC, women Ebola survivors have more difficulty reintegrating into public life or getting permission from their husbands to return home after recovery.

Reports of gender-based violence spiked during Ebola outbreaks. Quarantine measures, reduced access to external support, and stress associated with economic disruption are all factors which increase the risk of violence against women and girls in the home, called COVID-19’s “shadow pandemic” by UN Women.

To address this, Germany should:

  • ensure its response to COVID-19 is funded without redirecting aid from social cohesion and violence prevention actions;
  • support ongoing peacebuilding programming to adapt to the pandemic, including by incorporating rumour management and online activities like virtual exchange;
  • respond to this heightened risk of violence against women and girls in the home, including with support for monitoring, prevention, and response services.

3. Ensure an Inclusive Crisis Response and Recovery, Especially Regarding Youth

When crises strike, effective response and recovery will depend on ‘whole-of-society’ mobilisation. Beyond support for central authorities (directly or via multilateral agencies), it is important that civil society and sub-national governance are supported at scale. For instance, donors should resource not only police to enforce curfew, but also municipal civilian authorities to oversee it; not only the ministry of communications, but also independent media outlets.

Supporting civil society groups, women’s organisations, and non-traditional voices like social media influencers is crucial in areas where governments lack capacity, trust, and access. In DRC, trusted religious and community leaders, town criers, and radio producers played a critical role in turning the tide on Ebola misinformation and adoption of prevention measures. This same broad engagement is important for addressing effective recovery. In Liberia, when women leaders whom Search had been supporting were included in community decision making around recovery, their vital contribution in and beyond the Ebola crisis was recognised.

The COVID-19 crisis will be a generation-defining moment for young people. In immediate response, young people are important partners to ensure buy-in among their peers and harder to reach communities as they often have both knowledge and credibility that more formal actors lack. Today, young people from across Sri Lanka trained by Search as social media influencers are mobilising to spread life-saving information on COVID-19.

To address this, Germany should:

  • encourage and support participatory responses and innovative partnerships towards a healthy social recovery from this pandemic, ensuring local communities are meaningfully included;
  • partner with and support young people in COVID-19 response and recovery, ensuring youth-led organisations are included in supported partnerships, in line with Ambassador Schulz’s remarks at the April 27 UN Security Council debate on the Youth, Peace and Security agenda.

4. Use the Potential for Collaboration Across Dividing Lines

In communities where divisions and mistrust are high, health issues are one of the few topics that can bring people together across dividing lines. Interventions to protect vulnerable populations from this pandemic can offer opportunities to build trust among adversaries and reduce violence.

In eastern DRC, where some armed groups had been trying to manipulate Ebola response efforts to undermine confidence in the government, Search was able to bring government and opposition stakeholders together for Track II talks which helped to reduce mistrust and align messages. Beyond particular major health crises, the Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance, created by Search in 2002, brings together Israeli, Jordanian, and Palestinian authorities to promote coordinated early infectious disease detection, control and response capacities. It is one of the only regular government-to-government contacts between Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

Regarding COVID-19, there are already promising signs of ceasefires and collaboration to facilitate responses, including at the local level in Yemen. However, lasting progress will not come without local and international support, investment, and accompanying measures.

To address this, Germany should:

  • ensure it follows up its support for UN Secretary General Guterres call for a global ceasefire by mobilising its diplomatic tools to create incentives for warring parties to lay down their weapons;
  • sustain COVID-19 coordination efforts to build lasting collaboration, including by offering concrete support for grassroots efforts and ensuring inclusion of women and youth.
Friedensförderung Sub-Sahara Afrika Conflict Prevention COVID-19

Charline Burton

Charline Burton is Executive Director at Search for Common Ground, leading the development and implementation of Search’s strategy and partnerships throughout Europe. @Charline_Bur

Eoin O’Leary

Eoin O’Leary is Outreach Associate at Search for Common Ground, supporting strategy and engagement on European affairs and with EU, national, and non-governmental partners in Europe. @eoin_ol