Tag Archives conflict

COVID-19 and Conflict | Between myth and mistrust: the role of interlocutors in managing COVID-19 in Haiti

COVID-19 and Conflict | Between myth and mistrust: the role of interlocutors in managing COVID-19 in Haiti

Mistrust in state-provided information about COVID-19 has characterized citizen responses to the pandemic in Haiti, preventing the effective management of the virus. This article shows that this mistrust is rooted ...

COVID-19 | Ecuador, COVID-19 and the IMF: how austerity exacerbated the crisis by Ana Lucía Badillo Salgado and Andrew M. Fischer

COVID-19 | Ecuador, COVID-19 and the IMF: how austerity exacerbated the crisis by Ana Lucía Badillo Salgado and Andrew M. Fischer

Ecuador is currently (as of 8 April) the South American country worst affected by COVID-19 in terms of the number of confirmed cases and fatalities per capita. While even the ...

COVID-19 | Rethinking how to respond to COVID-19 in places where humanitarian crises intersect by Rodrigo Mena

It is widely known that COVID-19 will disproportionately affect developing countries and impoverished peoples. Many of these countries are already affected by conflict and disasters including humanitarian crises, making the contexts even more fragile and complex and the threat of COVID-19 even more serious. Some approaches to fighting the coronavirus pandemic might not be feasible in these contexts where multiple crises intersect, argues Rodrigo Mena. The responses implemented in many countries are not sufficient to minimize impacts that include the potential loss of thousands of lives in vulnerable contexts; prevention and context-specific solutions that also address the root causes of humanitarian crises are needed now more than ever.


While many are waiting for the crisis to pass, we need to remember that hazards such as conflicts, earthquakes, or droughts do not take holidays during pandemic times. When they set in, governments will have to decide where to allocate the limited funds they have. Whereas many countries already have to make hard choices, hovering between strategies to prevent an economic recession and the prevention of the spread of the virus, countries with several pre-existing and ongoing crises, particularly those dependent on humanitarian aid, have even harder choices to make. When a disaster occurs together with COVID-19, will efforts be directed toward rebuilding the country or stopping the spread of the virus? And how will these countries deal with ongoing issues such as underdevelopment in general?

After four years researching disaster responses and humanitarian aid in conflict-affected places, I summarise here some considerations to take into account on why the general approach to COVID-19 might not be viable in many situations. Most recommendations can make things worse in traditional humanitarian crisis scenarios or places where the poorest and most vulnerable live. The places I studied faced disasters, conflict, and were generally underdeveloped, making them particularly vulnerable to any shock, including pandemics such as the COVID-19, and rendering governments incapable of responding effectively.

Refugee Camp, Bangladesh - COVID19

Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Rod Mena

Additional issues are multiple. Here are a few:

  1. Lack of access to water. With about 780 million people in the world without access to clean water (780 million!) and in places facing conflict, ‘access to safe water is often compromised; infrastructure is damaged or goes into decline, pipelines are in disrepair, and water collection is dangerous’, as presented by UNICEF. The advice to wash your hands regularly or use disinfectant might certainly not be feasible for many. In fact, aid actors are already struggling to deliver water in many places and an extra demand for it can exacerbate or be the source of new conflicts.
  2. Lack of space. As many have indicated, COVID-19 will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in the world, including those depending on humanitarian aid to survive. Social distancing might be impossible for the close to 30% of the world urban population living in slums, or for the close to 7 million living in refugee camps. And with more than 6% of the world’s employed population in the informal economy, the option to stay at home or quarantine looks unfeasible for many, let alone for those whose homes have been destroyed or left behind when they had to move because of disasters and conflict.
  3. Greater humanitarian need. In addition, less-developed countries and populations not being aided at the moment might also start needing support. For example, despite multiple difficulties in many refugee camps and crisis-affected areas, there is a system in place to support people in need, but people living out of those spaces might struggle as much or more with this pandemic. The humanitarian aid sector, thus, will face a greater number of people depending on external aid. How and whether the aid sector should assist people affected directly or indirectly by the coronavirus is still an open debate, not only in terms of the real capacities to do it beyond the funding, but also in terms of capacities to do it adequately and safely[1].
  4. Challenges to apply response strategies. A number of challenges can also impede the World Health Organization’s Test, Treat, Track strategy in places under high levels of conflict or facing humanitarian crises[2]:

Testing. If there is zero or reduced access to testing kits (and laboratories or medical personnel to run the tests), accurate figures on the number of deaths or infected people are obscured, making it difficult to plan how to provide relief.

Treating. When it comes to treating the most severely affected by COVID-19, the main procedure is connecting them to ventilators. A global shortage of ventilators is already apparent, and in least-developed countries, we need to add reduced access to reliable sources of electricity. In fact, close 20% of the world populations do not have access to electricity, and in low-income countries that can reach up to 60% —and yes, this includes hospitals that only have electricity via petrol or diesel generators.

Tracking. Then, when it comes to tracking the virus, we know that in places affected by conflict and disasters, many people are displaced or constantly on the move (there are 70.8 million displaced people worldwide, ranging from internally displaced persons to refugees and asylum seekers). Also, the demographics or databases of these places are not always reliable. This makes tracking very cumbersome or even impossible.

  1. Finally, the option to close borders or declare lockdowns might be detrimental in places affected by war or conflict, where many flee to safety or do not have access to goods and services to support their lives.

Vulnerability is created

These are far from all the concerns, but they are enough to show what is well known in disaster studies: that disasters are not natural but socially constructed, including the COVID-19 crisis, as a blog post from Ilan Kelman clearly shows. The pandemic that we have is much more the consequence of social and politically wrong decisions and lack of preparedness than the spreading rate or lethality of the virus. Particularly, a lack of preparedness or decision not to act based on the knowledge that we had (because multiple official reports indicated the probabilities of a pandemic like this and how to prevent it or mitigate its impacts), has greatly contributed to the severity of the crisis[3].

If we do not start thinking about how to prepare to COVID-19 in less-developed places with context-specific solutions, we will be repeating the story; we will keep choosing not to be prepared, which will keep on resulting in catastrophic impacts. If there is something that we have learnt from disasters in the past, it is that prevention is almost always better than responding. Not doing so, or expecting that measures as these reviewed above will work in the most vulnerable places, is to turn a blind eye and hope for the best.


[1] But now with a global economic recession and an aid system already with a 40% shortfall on the funds needed to assist everyone in need, as presented in the 2019 ‘Global Humanitarian Assistance Report’.
[2] And in many cases not even feasible in western countries like France or the United States.
[3] For instance, the ‘National Risk Profile 2016’ of the Netherlands indicated that ‘due to the possible destabilising impact, the main focus of the NRP [National Risk Profile] is on the risks of a large-scale outbreak of an infectious disease, such as a flu pandemic’. Similarly, in 2006, the United States developed the National Strategy for Pandemic Influenza based on the risk of this event to occur (with the following update in 2017). Also, astonishingly, a report on global preparedness for health emergencies dated September 2019, issued by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board, co-convened by World Health Organization and the World Bank, that ‘explores and identifies the most urgent needs and actions required to accelerate preparedness for health emergencies, focusing in particular on biological risks manifesting as epidemics and pandemics’, concludes that a global pandemic ‘would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and insecurity. The world is not prepared’.

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.


R. Mena (2019)About the author:

Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental researcher and AiO-PhD at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid governance in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios, with South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen as main cases. He has experience conducting fieldwork and researching in conflict and disaster zones from in Africa, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and Asia.


Image Credits: Rod Mena

“Whose responsibility is it anyway”? Questioning the role of UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO in stabilizing the eastern DRC by Delphin Ntanyoma

“Whose responsibility is it anyway”? Questioning the role of UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO in stabilizing the eastern DRC by Delphin Ntanyoma

In the highly volatile eastern DRC, where over the past decades violent conflict and political instability have claimed the lives of thousands of civilians, UN peacekeeping mission MONUSCO has intervened ...

Complexity of Micro-level Violent Conflict:  An ‘Urban Bias’ lenses of a Native Researcher? by Delphin Ntanyoma

Complexity of Micro-level Violent Conflict: An ‘Urban Bias’ lenses of a Native Researcher? by Delphin Ntanyoma

Micro-level violent conflict is complex, and the triggers of violence are unpredictable. Building on long-seated unresolved grievances coupled with the presence of foreign armed groups in Eastern Congo, the South-Kivu ...

IHSA Conference 2018 | The instrumentalisation of disasters by David Keen

Today, not just disaster but the functions—and instrumentalisation—of disaster have been brought right into the heart of Europe. If widespread official violence and the instrumentalisation of disaster can happen right under the eyes of a free press and under the watch of two of the world’s most established democracies, what then is possible in greater seclusion? This blog is based on a keynote speech delivered at the International Humanitarian Studies Association Conference held in August 2018 at the ISS.


Visiting Calais in October 2015, the child psychiatrist Lynne Jones asked, “how is it possible that on the borders of a north European town, there are some 6,000 people living in conditions worse than those I have encountered with Somali refugees on the Ethiopian border, Pakistanis after a devastating earthquake, or Darfuris in the deserts of Northern Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world?”

It was shocking to realise that such a situation could develop—and be allowed to develop—in the heart of Western Europe. When disasters have occurred in more distant lands, government and aid officials have often pointed to obstacles like remoteness, insecurity and the rainy season. But Calais is an hour-and-a-half by train from London and Paris.

Where the functions of disaster have been recognised, this has often been in relation to ‘faraway’ places. These functions may include political repression in a ‘state of emergency’ as well as profits from price movements and from the depopulation of resource-rich areas. But today, not just disaster but the functions—and instrumentalisation—of disaster have been brought right into the heart of Europe.

The instrumentalisation of disasters

A big part of the instrumentalisation of disasters today is the logic of deterrence. Many aid workers and human rights workers saw the appalling conditions on the Greek island of Lesbos as part of an attempt to deter migration. In Calais, government officials have sometimes made it pretty clear that they want to maintain pressure on the migrants and to make conditions so bad as to discourage people from coming, and migrants/refugees in Calais themselves also saw a connection. For example, one young Sudanese man from Darfur said in the summer of 2016 when we were in Calais that “beatings are getting worse as large numbers are here now and they [the police] want to discourage it.”

The political instrumentalisation of Calais has involved not just deterrence, but also political theatre aimed at domestic audiences. This is partly about stirring up fears and then exploiting them politically. Particularly in the run-up to the UK’s Brexit referendum in June 2016, Calais was repeatedly on the front page of the UK’s Daily Mail, the Daily Express, and the Sun—considered right-wing newspapers. It somehow symbolised, crystallised and exacerbated very deep-rooted fears about immigration, criminality, disease, terrorism, and loss of control.

Another political pay-off from the high-profile situation in Calais was that it allowed the British government under Labour and then under David Cameron to send a strong message that, even while still within the EU, the UK was taking tough measures to control illegal immigration. When UK border controls were set up in France in 2002, this contributed to a sharp fall in UK asylum applications. It also had the effect of fostering the informal migrant settlements around Calais, which were then used to underline the necessity of strong controls.

Ever since the first major settlement in Calais in 1999, there have been periodic police actions to intimidate and disperse people. I think a great many British people do not realise what has been done ‘on their behalf’ in Calais and surrounding areas. This is an example of what Mark Duffield referred to a long time ago as ‘functional ignorance’. The UK government is been deeply complicit in this particular ‘hostile environment’, and indeed Calais migrants have often expressed this view. The UK has helped to plan and fund dispersals and has also sometimes taken credit for them. For example, a 2010 UK government press release welcomed the package of actions agreed with France the previous year, saying a key measure was “the dismantling of the illegal encampments along the Channel and North Sea coast.”[1]

In October 2016, French police, in coordination with the UK, destroyed the most famous ‘jungle’ camp, which had been established on a landfill site ridden with asbestos in January 2015. But such measures tend to disperse migrants and make them less visible rather than actually resolving the situation. In his book Illegality Inc., Swedish anthropologist Ruben Andersson brilliantly documented the way migration controls shift the problem geographically while allowing short-term gains from appearing tough.

In Calais, the violence of French police has been well documented, for example by the Refugee Rights Data Project (now Refugee Rights Europe) and by Human Rights Watch. One Calais volunteer told us: “Everyone has had experience of teargas or rubber bullets. The head injuries from rubber bullets were terrible.”

Sadly, the very enterprise of the migrants seems to have attracted further police repression. This may reflect what Noam Chomsky once called the threat of a good example. While we were at the camp in 2016, there was a series of large-scale police raids on the surprisingly vibrant network of shops and restaurants, closing some and confiscating food, drinks and documents.

Violent action and the plausibility of propaganda

This brings me to Hannah Arendt’s concept of ‘action as propaganda’ – essentially the use of violent action (often by totalitarian regimes) to create a world in which implausible propaganda becomes more plausible over time. One historical example she gave was confining Jews to insanitary ghettoes and camps so that they came to appear disease-ridden and even less than human, in line with Nazi propaganda. Calais has been a horrendous example of ‘action as propaganda’, with harsh punishment of any signs of cultural or economic life; meanwhile, violence and disease are generally portrayed as part of the threat that Calais poses, ignoring the reality of a community that could be extraordinarily kind and hospitable. Even the violence and disease that have occurred in the camp have overwhelmingly been a consequence of neglect and overcrowding. Meanwhile, the very brutality of police responses has helped reinforce the message that these vulnerable people are somehow an existential threat to Western populations.

Calais is part of a much wider phenomenon of outsourcing migration control. This involves a large dose of de-responsibilisation, a fairly systematic tolerance for human rights abuses that are in some sense functional and that can also be conveniently blamed on others.

And if widespread official violence and the instrumentalisation of disaster can happen right under the eyes of a free press and under the watch of two of the world’s most established democracies, what then is possible in greater seclusion?

EU member states have enabled the Libyan Coast Guard to turn back thousands of people to Libya, where they face torture, sexual violence and other horrendous abuses[2]. In Sudan, the Rapid Support Forces (which grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias responsible for genocide) have been deployed against migrants (usually from ethnic groups victimised in the genocide) as part of Sudan’s effort to demonstrate to the European Union that it can contain flows of migrants[3].

We need to be extraordinarily wary of the signals sent when certain populations are deemed systematically to be unwanted and even, in Arendt’s telling word, ‘undeportable’. Arendt showed that in the 1920s and 1930s, in a context of mass expulsions in Europe and a corresponding unwillingness to receive these people, “the very phrase ‘human rights’ became for all concerned—victims, persecutors, and onlookers alike—the evidence of hopeless idealism or fumbling feeble-minded hypocrisy.”[4] The Nazis had carefully tested the ground and found that almost no-one was willing to receive the Jews, Arendt stressed, before they launched their project of elimination.

How can all this possibly be justified? Well, today the shadowy figure of the ‘people smuggler’ has acquired important political functions as a scapegoat and a convenient alibi for neglect and abuse by a range of political authorities and unaccountable militias. Studies of the diverse economic and political functions of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism suggest that the rebel or terrorist has frequently become a kind of useful enemy[5]; I would suggest that in many ways the figure of ‘people smuggler’ has stepped conveniently into this pre-existing paradigm. And like the terrorist, the ‘exploitative smuggler’ is also routinely reproduced by the policies of those who claim to revile him, not least the tightening of immigration controls (as Andersson and others have shown).

Closely related to the relentless official focus on the ‘human smuggler’ is the tendency to place everything within an ‘anti-crime’ framework. Again, crime is a reality, but it is very dangerous when anything and anyone remotely connected to migration—including the attempt to claim asylum—is labelled as criminal. The emerging ‘anti-crime’ framework is also a great alibi for abusive officials or neglectful officials and a great way of disguising official involvement in fuelling conflict.

The redefinition of humanitarianism

Closely related to the war on crime and on human smugglers is a fairly systematic redefinition of humanitarianism. Humanitarianism has today been routinely redefined as the prevention of dangerous journeys. In these circumstances, Western government policies that make these journeys more dangerous; for example, the curbing of search-and-rescue in the Mediterranean, or encouraging violence in Calais, or even turning a blind eye to attacks on migrants travelling through Mexico serve as another form of Arendt’s ‘action as propaganda’. Within this emerging system, drowning may come to serve two related functions—first, as deterrence and, second, as propaganda for the allegedly ‘humanitarian’ project of preventing people from making the journey in the first place.

It seems to be a case – to paraphrase Henry II’s infamous reported incitement to the murder of archbishop Thomas-a-Becket, of “who will rid us of these troublesome migrants?” As with the creation of ‘safe areas’ in Bosnia that turned out not to be safe, Western governments cannot be honest about the evolving situation in France, Greece, Libya, Sudan, Mexico, Turkey, Sri Lanka and many other countries when they are obsessed with containing people within those environments.


[1] UK Prime Minister’s Office, 2010, UK-France Summit 2010 Declaration on Immigration, November 2. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-france-summit-2010-declaration-on-immigration
[2] Amnesty International, 2017, Libya’s Dark Web of Collusion, December
[3] Suliman Baldo, 2017, Ominous Threats Descending on Darfur, Enough, Washington, November; Susanne Jaspars and Margie Buchanan-Smith, 2018, Darfuri migration from Sudan to Europe; From displacement to despair, ODI, London, September forthcoming
[4] Hannah Arendt, 1951, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York, Harcourt Brace.
[5] David Keen, 2012, Useful Enemies: When Waging Wars is More Important than Winning Them, Yale University Press.

David-Keen.jpgAbout the author: 

David Keen is Professor of Conflict Studies, London School of Economics. He has worked extensively on understanding war, including its causes and functions.

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