This is the fourth in a series of essays exploring the economic, social and cultural effects upon the daily lives of persons living in the United States, western Europe and more broadly around the world, as we emerge from the global Covid-19 lockdown pandemic.
By Matthew Parish
Will the world that emerges from the Coronavirus pandemic be more or less dangerous than the world we were used to as we entered this time of crisis? Although no reliable figures exist, perhaps 120,000 people died in armed conflict in the course of 2019. So far in three months in 2020, approximately 350,000 people have died of Coronavirus globally. Therefore Coronavirus tends to be more lethal than contemporary war. However the comparison is far from exact. Although a number people who die in war would soon have died anyway, a large number would not. In this regard, civil conflict is distinct from Coronavirus.
To measure the comparative malice of a pandemic disease, one properly needs to measure the number of life-years it removes from each person, or otherwise cater to the moral observation that a disease that kills one 95 year-old person is, while terrible, not as terrible as a disease that kills one 25 year-old. The data necessary to calculate the number of life-years stolen by Covid-19 may be permanently lost in the statistics collected about the Coronavirus pandemic, because (as with wartime casualties) so sophisticated a measurement of death is not usually thought about at the time the death is recorded, even to an approximation. A recent US statistical study has estimated that death from Coronavirus on average removes 10 years of a person’s life. Nevertheless it is a fair moral intuition that because the mean age of the dead is lower in war, war is proportionately worse than Coronavirus per mortality counted. On the other hand, statistics counting both death in war and death from pandemic disease are likely underestimates, and it is not at all obvious in which category the underestimation is greater.
In any event we can say this: Coronavirus is at least in some sense morally comparable to war in the global evil it ravages upon our earth in 2020. The difference between war and pandemic disease – and this is a disgrace upon the human race – is that wars can be stopped by the decisions of men, whereas humans can have only a limited effect upon the spread of contagious disease. Nevertheless men do not stop themselves from having wars; and the toll of war takes effect year after year after year, whereas Coronavirus will sooner or later surely burn itself out. It is only because Coronavirus potentially affects so much more of us in theory, threatening the Grim Reaper’s visit over each one of our bodies, that we collectively take action against pandemic disease of a kind we never collectively take to prevent the onset of war. War is a minority exercise that we regret from afar once it has begun, having seen it on the television.
That having been said, Coronavirus does seem to have had a positive influence upon the conduct of war at the time of writing. Of 2019’s six major geopolitical wars – Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and the Maghreb insurgency (but excluding Mexico’s drugs war as a different species of conflict) – the number of deaths in 2020 has fallen dramatically in each case. In Libya a mere 156 people have died in the first four months of the year, compared to thousands in 2019. Casualties in the Somalian civil war are down to single figures in 2020. Deaths this year in Yemen, at the time of writing, barely top 100. It would be inspiring to imagine that the reason the number of deaths in all these wars has substantially decreased is because fighters, afraid for themselves and their families, have given up arms in favour of looking after their loved ones. Alas this is not the most likely explanation. People are perfectly capable of continuing to fight when they are sick, as the slide of Russia into Civil War from 1917 notwithstanding the ravages of the Spanish ‘flu, far more contagious and deadly than Coronavirus, attests to.
The true reason why civil wars and conflicts tend to find at least temporary respite amidst pandemic disease is because the regional or Great Powers supporting them with personnel, weapons and financing become distracted with affairs at home. Indeed one of the most effective tools in dampening a nation’s over-exuberant foreign policy is concentrated attention upon some domestic issue. Sometimes foreign wars are started as a distraction from domestic troubles; but equally, where domestic troubles emerge during the course of foreign operations the civilian attention may be directed elsewhere. People may not wish to hear of their taxpayers’ dollars being spent in foreign adventurism when there is so much trouble at home. In the context of a pandemic disease, the military may be commandeered to assist with the domestic healthcare effort: something that has been seen across the globe in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic. Soldiers cannot be both at home building hospitals and abroad fighting terrorists.
Security establishment attention upon foreign terrorism is therefore, at least temporarily, diverted. And then, once armed forces are back home, political momentum sets in and it may be politically pricey to redeploy them quickly so as to preserve whatever foreign strategic goals were being pursued. In the intervening period, the dynamic in a foreign war may have changed. The status quo may be resistant to being upset. Most people in civil wars do not want those wars; they are almost always driven by foreign powers in substantial part. Once the foreigners lose interest, local combatants routinely find their own accommodations.
The Libyan Civil War in its current phase is a proxy war between Russian paramilitaries operating under the name “Wagner Group”, supporting US-trained General Haftar and one branch of the Libyan Army; and Turkey, who support a UN-led government backed by another part of the Libyan Army. These parties’ interests in Libya are at best geopolitical (or “fuzzy”), in the broadest sense of the word. Libya’s principal commodity is oil, but since the Libyan civil war began in 2011 the country has not pumped substantial quantities by reason of political instability, violence and legal uncertainty. There has been no definitive answer as to the conundrum of with which government a third party ought to be dealing. Now Coronavirus has pushed trading in hydrocarbons to historically low levels, with even speculative forward pricing being low, Brent crude being priced at USD31 at the time of writing. The economics of a demand-side failure and historically low prices has driven Libya’s foreign protagonists to ask whether the country is really worth fighting over, and combat levels have substantially decreased as the conflict again becomes predominantly domestic.
The civil war in Yemen is between two religious groups, Houthis (Shia-leaning) and Sunni, backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively. This is not a struggle over oil revenues, as Yemen has none. Domestically, conflict in Yemen has always been driven by competition for water and food; the land is parched. Iran and Saudi Arabia have been using the country as territory for a proxy war over Shia versus Sunni influence in the Middle East. However both Saudi Arabia and Iran have suffered heavily from the Coronavirus pandemic, as their healthcare systems have become overloaded and military resources have had to be redeployed to assist civilians and even to keep law and order. Moreover both countries now face economic crisis, through a combination in reduction in economic activity as the two countries have locked themselves down; and by virtue of low oil prices and rock-bottom demand. Oil is the premise for both countries’ economies. One way of putting matters might be that fighting over a parched piece of territory such as Yemen, purely for the significance of grandstanding over control of the poorest part of the Arabian peninsula, falls in the list of national priorities in the face of a national healthcare and economic emergency.
Although these are only two examples themselves out of a sample of six, we see the beginnings of a pattern in which pandemic disease applies pressure upon the foreign and defence policies of mechanisms to withdraw from foreign complications in which there is not a very strong national interest. The reasons for this are principally financial – fighting foreign proxy wars costs a lot of money. They are also related to manpower – the troops necessary, particularly for civil wars where ground troops are comparatively much more important, need to be used for domestic purposes. A final consideration is that intelligence resources, also much in demand in civil wars as patterns of alignment and foreign intervention are perpetually shifting, must be redeployed to consider how best to prevent the domestic and global further spread of disease, and how to reduce the likelihood of further similar pandemics in the future.
The tentative conclusion we might reach, with admittedly greater study needed, is that pandemic diseases reduce the incidence of civil wars in the short term. However it is not clear that this conclusion holds for the medium term, and various hypotheses to this effect are currently in circulation amongst the defence and security communities of the world when they fear that the Covid-19 pandemic is giving licence to terrorist and insurgency movements to regroup as the machinery of national government loses focus upon them. The line between civil wars and terrorist insurgencies is often a narrow one in the modern world. With the ease of civilian acquisition of military equipment, particularly but not exclusively in the Middle East, itself a consequence of a proliferation of civil conflicts in the region, many a terrorist organisation checked too late can become a participant in a civl conflict.
This we have seen in the civil war in Afghanistan, as the Taliban, a fighting party declared a terrorist organisation, have found themselves in an alliance with the terrorist organisation Al Qaida in fighting the US-backed government in Kabul. Another terrorist group with a habit of becoming a party in an insurgency or even developing into a porto-state is the so-called “Islamic State”, that ran parts of northern Syria and Iraq for a number of years until 2017 when the organisation was almost completely eliminated from territorial control over those two countries. Nevertheless it has returned as a spoiling force in the current peace negotiations in Afghanistan between the United States and the Taliban, claiming responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks with a view to disrupting the ceasefire that at the time of writing (late May 2020) is approximately holding. The point is already being made by analysts that the Islamic State, an organisation with sophisticated cross-border financing and manpower resources, is taking advantage of a current lack of attention towards it on the part of the security apparatus of the west to embed ifs finances, its financing networks and its personnel.
If that is right, then the medium-term consequence of the Coronavirus pandemic may be to cement terrorist insurgencies and thus to increase the likelihood of future conflicts of certain kinds. The moral of this story is not to permit one’s security structures to lapse in the face of other crises. That is because at its heart, war and conflict is caused by famine, disease, insecurity and suffering, all of which the impending global economic downturn are likely to cause more of. While in the short term wars may stall, they will soon be back and with a vengeance. A poorer and more uncertain world means one with more conflict, not less. We need to be ready for this, and in focusing upon short-term healthcare security not lose sight of the medium horizon of a likely increasingly dangerous world.
Much the same can be said about crime. Already we have seen a short-term decrease in crime rates as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. Much crime across the globe involves the sale and distribution of illegal narcotics, demand for which has decreased as everyone has been obliged to stay at home. Street robberies and public acts of violence are likewise down, because nobody has been going out in public. Criminals do not want Coronavirus anymore than anybody else does. However again these are likely to be short-term trends to be bucked by a prevailing increase in violent crime in most countries, again driven by uncertainty, poverty and economic crisis. In the last recession of the magnitude we are now facing, the Great Depression, crime rates rose steadily and we can expect the same thing. The world’s Police forces will be kept busy. The underlying causes of criminal and international terrorist acts are fundamentally the same: poverty, debt, anxiety and desperation. They are problems we will continue to need to manage assiduously, as we as societies fumble our way through the dark days of economic crisis ahead of us.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer and scholar of international relations based in Geneva, Switzerland. He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Leicester; was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum; and has been named as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. An expert in UN reform, he is the author of several books and over three hundred articles. www.matthewparish.com
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.