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The President's Take

COVID-19’s Bewildering Impact on the World’s Crises and Conflicts

In his introduction to this month’s edition of CrisisWatch, our President Robert Malley reflects on the devastating consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and how the outbreak is exacerbating conflict across the globe.

It’s month two of the COVID-19 outbreak, and we still face more questions than answers. Uncertainties surround in particular the issue of why some countries have experienced the virus far more severely than others. Of notable interest to Crisis Group, many conflict-afflicted areas, whose populations are especially vulnerable, so far appear to have been spared the brunt of the disease. A good rundown by The New York Times sheds some light, though light that ultimately illuminates a frustrating cascade of riddles: explanations related to age might account for high incidence rates in Italy, whose population trends toward the elderly, but not for high rates in Ecuador, whose citizens tend to be young, or low ones in Japan; some countries with warmer, more humid climates have fared well, others like Brazil less so; one can point to early lockdown measures in South Africa as reason for relative success, but then again Cambodia and Laos did not follow that route and yet do not seem to have suffered disproportionately. Insufficient testing plus delays in the spread of the virus may be a crucial factor in explaining these seeming contradictions, and it remains possible that those who avoided the worst today may suffer it tomorrow. But that too is speculation.

All told, the most prudent if unsatisfactory scientific but also political answer to questions about when it’s the right time to re-open for business seems to be: we don’t know. Which means that authorities in each country will need to balance the need for continued health protections against the socio-economic cost of prolonged lockdowns. 

But even those who have not been hit by COVID-19 are being devastated by its consequences. These include unemployment, the collapse of the informal economy, food shortages, social unrest and, in some cases, political crackdowns under the guise of public health concern. The CrisisWatch pages that follow detail the pandemic’s consequences for deadly conflict across the globe, and we will continue to monitor these closely: from protests over food and fuel shortages and a violently suppressed prison riot in Venezuela, to a recrudescence of protests in Lebanon culminating in firebomb attacks, to the targeting of Muslims in Sri Lanka and India fuelled by hate speech and the incendiary labeling of the virus as a “corona jihad”.

COVID-19 may overshadow all else, but other aspects of politics – and conflict – go on. A recent development with particularly risky long-term implications is the U.S. administration’s vow to prolong the UN-imposed arms embargo on Iran, which is due to expire in October under the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal (or JCPOA) and the UN Security Council resolution endorsing it. To achieve that goal, Washington almost certainly would need to invoke the so-called “snapback” provision of that deal allowing any participant to re-impose UN sanctions, even though by its own account it exited the deal in 2018. 

To be clear: the Trump administration’s ploy has very little to do with extending an arms embargo that, in practice, has limited practical impact. It has everything to do with its determination to strike the nuclear deal a final and fatal blow. That re-imposing sanctions might prompt Iran to abandon any nuclear restraint and, perhaps, abandon the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in its entirety is not an unintended consequence of the administration’s actions – it’s the point: to ensure that no one – not Europe, and certainly not a possible future Democratic president – could sustain the deal. 

That’s why the administration is so willing to unashamedly distort plain language and claim that it remains a participant in an agreement it loudly and proudly left; so cavalier in defying the views of its European allies; so dismissive of the UN Security Council’s credibility; and so indifferent to the risks of provoking an armed confrontation in the Middle East the U.S. president repeatedly asserts he wishes to avoid.