Medics check for signs of coronavirus infection from those coming to the southern city of Taiz in Yemen, March 24, 2020 (Photo credit: anasalhajj / Shutterstock.com)
A global ceasefire amid COVID-19: Necessary but not sufficient

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called for a global ceasefire on March 23 so the world to focus on the COVID-19 pandemic. While only a handful of countries have picked up the call, hundreds of nongovernmental organizations and local civil society groups are working to make it a reality.

Ceasefires bring hope to end catastrophic violence and humanitarian crises around the world. A recent consultation on how COVID-19 has been affecting peacebuilding with more than 400 local experts from over 60 countries found that the pandemic and the response to it are exacerbating violence and conflict. Ongoing armed violence contributes to further spread of the virus.

Ceasefires provide a vital pause in conflicts that could help mitigate both violence and the spread of the virus. It also brings an opportunity to begin a peace process to address the root causes of conflict and put an end to the violence. A global ceasefire will not be easy to achieve, but it is not out of the question. It will take a holistic approach with the international community, national governments, and local communities.

The report of the consultation published by Peace Direct, Conducive Space for Peace, and Humanity United shows there are opportunities for ceasefires to succeed and to build sustainable peace.

Local peacebuilders are on the front lines to end violence in their communities and to spread awareness of COVID-19. They understand the complexities of the conflict taking place in their communities and can respond to the pandemic with conflict sensitivity to not exacerbate underlying root causes for violence. But many of them do not have the resources they need to succeed.

Shifting funding away from peacebuilding to focus only on COVID-19 puts many vulnerable communities at risk. Many countries and armed militias are taking advantage of the war time rhetoric used by the United States and other countries to counter the spread of the pandemic to extend power and close civic spaces like freedom of speech, press, and assembly. Moreover, stay-at-home measures have closed many businesses and government agencies, which have  resulted in an increase in criminality and violence that exacerbate underlying causes of conflict. These measures have already seen a drastic rise in domestic violence.

Boaz Mukaramoja, a peacebuilder from Kenya, explains, “Now the government offices are partially functional, the courts are closed down and the local administration is also partially working. So, this is aggravating the conflict because we are seeing a rise in theft cases in the rural areas. It is also difficult for peace builders to make any interventions because the government order of working from home.”

The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree that COVID-19 will disproportionately affect poorer populations and nations, which underscores the importance of foreign aid from wealthier countries. But providing COVID-19 aid must be approached with sensitivity to the underlying conflicts in many parts of the world. The solution is supporting local actors who have comprehensive knowledge of conflict dynamics.

There is a growing trend of supporting local people to address the problems their community faces. Now more than ever is a time to invest into local people to enhance the skills and resources available to them to spread awareness about COVID-19 and to continue preventing violence to build sustainable peace which will continue long after the pandemic has been contained.

It is necessary for international, national, and local actors to work together in these unprecedented times to succeed in achieving a global ceasefire, but also to take the next steps to a more permanent resolution — and this process is not unprecedented. Indeed, national actors — like the Sudanese Professionals Association — and peacebuilders worked together in Sudan to oust Omar al-Bashir from power. The United States and the international community provided diplomatic pressure on the Transitional Military Council and aided the national actors and local peacebuilders to come to an agreement that will give power to the people of Sudan.

COVID-19 awareness is vital for national actors to curb the spread until a cure is found. National actors can provide the space necessary for local peacebuilders to operate. They can also work to prevent the spread of false or misleading information about the virus. International actors can support local peacebuilders with the resources they need to enhance their abilities and increase the chances for success.

When it comes to combatting COVID-19, peace works better. It will take a holistic approach of international, national, and local actors to contain COVID-19 and end violent conflict around the world. The ceasefire is necessary to curb the pandemic, but also provides the perfect time for people to unite and end violence altogether.