Peace and Pandemics: How COVID-19 will impact violence and what we can do about it

by | Mar 27, 2020

As the world prepares for and responds to the direct health impacts of the COVID-19 coronavirus, those of us who work on reducing violence and preventing conflict are also bracing. The coronavirus pandemic is already producing knock-on effects for safety at the individual level, the community level, and – potentially – at the international level.

Recognizing and naming the risks we face is imperative, as is highlighting the positive steps being taken to reinforce peaceful resilience, to remind ourselves of our common humanity, and to re-invest in the international systems of cooperation that are more critical now than at any time in the past decade.

Below are six areas we should be prioritizing from a conflict and violence perspective, followed by a roadmap to help us chart a pathway forward:

Increases in domestic and intimate partner violence. Over 35% of women globally have experienced physical or sexual violence, much taking place within the home, by intimate partners or family members. Isolation and quarantine requirements will force many women to remain inside with their abusers. Last month, during China’s quarantine, there were three times as many calls to police reporting domestic violence incidents than the previous year. Simultaneously, resources – shelters, outreach by social workers, law enforcement intervention – will be more limited as funds dry up, staffing tightens, and priorities shift. Women are essential voices in reinforcing peace and social cohesion. And, yet, when crisis strikes, their bodies, as the WHO has said, become battlefields.

An increase in firearms deaths. The United States dominates the global arms industry. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, sales of firearms in the US have spiked, as indicated by a 300% increase in processing of background checks. Many of these purchases are being made by first time gun owners, some of whom will have limited training on proper handling and use of a firearm. Unsecured guns in the home kill eight children every day in the US and increase likelihood of death from suicide and domestic violence. Given relaxed regulations on sales of guns overseas, a proliferation of weapons could ultimately result in more trade of firearms to countries nearby, including those already struggling with exceptionally high levels of violence such as Mexico, El Salvador, and Jamaica. More guns will make families less safe in both the short and longer term.

Increased violence resulting from lack of trust. Trust in governments is declining around the world. During the recent outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a lack of trust in governmental and international response resulted in over 300 attacks on health workers in 2019. Such incidents are not only immediately destructive, they limited the ability to fight the deadly spread of Ebola. Just when we need them most, the intentional undermining of our systems of international cooperation over the past decade has and will continue to allow conflict to take root. It is partly for this reason that there has been a 140% increase in armed conflict since the year 2000. Unsupported international systems of assistance will further undermine the ability to deliver aid and stop the spread of COVID-19 to some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including the millions trapped in Northern Syria right now.

We will see an increase in human rights abuses. The lack of trust in governing institutions is partly a consequence of a rise in authoritarianism across the globe, where both civic and journalistic space are diminishing. Political leaders will use this emergency to further consolidate power. States will take action against civilians resulting in abuse of human rights and limitations on freedoms in the name of pandemic abatement. We will see further negative impacts to processes of democracy, even in places with strong democratic traditions. Elections in the UK and US have already been postponed, where we will see cries of foul play by political actors down the road.

Fear will be used to incite violence. While some will respond to the pandemic with calls for greater cooperation, others will turn into fear and violence. Already we have seen attacks on foreigners in Ethiopia, people of Asian descent around the world, and a rhetoric among leaders that aims to use the virus to fan the flames of identity-based otherism. Social media will allow such fearmongering to spread, creating opportunities for maligned actors to further their manipulations of popular content for strategic aims. The use of social media to foment violence is well documented, from Myanmar to India to Brazil. There is no reason to expect that COVID-19 will not be subject to social media manipulation as well.

Extreme number of displaced persons will suffer even more. As people look inward to protect themselves and their loved ones, the world must not forget that the COVID-19 outbreak is taking place at the same time that there are over 70 million people forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, violence, and persecution. Not only are displaced populations at particular risk of the health impacts of the coronavirus, the underlying breakdown of peaceful order will continue. As governmental and philanthropic organisations shift funding to invest in immediate public health needs, attention risks shifting away from maintaining the ceasefire in northern Syria, consolidating gains in Ethiopia or halting arms sales fueling violence in Yemen.

It is hard to consider the scope of the challenges ahead and think optimistically – and yet, we must. Luckily, we have roadmaps to help chart a path forward. Those who dedicate their lives to making people and communities safer – the peacebuilders of this world – can light our way.

As a first step, we must acknowledge that unless we address the global tilt towards inequality, the above phenomenon will not only worsen, they will consolidate. As the UN Secretary-General has said, “Income disparities and a lack of opportunities are creating a vicious cycle of inequality, frustration and discontent across generations.” Inequality directly contributes to fueling violence, undermines our ability to reverse cycles of poverty as called for in the Sustainable Development Goals, and undermines a sense of collective respect in humanity. Calls are being made to respond to the current crisis with attention paid to addressing long-standing inequalities, including those between genders. We would do well to heed such advice.

Second, it is long past time to rebuild our faltering governing systems, placing real value in the legitimacy of institutions. In the short term, in places from Nairobi to Chicago where governments have failed to deliver safety outcomes for all residents, we are seeing credible messengers share information on how to address COVID-19, providing a protective layer in areas where trust in government is low. These efforts should be supported to both address COVID-19 and potentially build a stronger platform for future transformation of public sector investment, something that must start by listening. Re-investment in our institutions extends to our international systems of cooperation as well. Tackling the coronavirus and the fallout it will bring cannot be accomplished by one nation alone. It’s well overdue to respect, fund, and staff our international institutions to support not only direct service, but also the nuanced negotiations to recover from this pandemic. 

Finally, listening to people also reinforces social cohesion more broadly, which is crucial to helping communities recover from disasters. People want to feel part of something, including at times of crisis. This is particularly important in contexts where trust is low. Creative social networking has already begun taking place within the context of COVID-19 pandemic as people, companies, and governments reinforce the power of collective resilience. Recalling the methods proven to reinforce resilience will be crucial in the days, weeks, and months ahead. Indeed, there are already lessons about how governments can communicate the public health imperatives in such ways that calm fears and support best practice.

The spirit of the protests witnessed around the world in 2019 will not die as a result of COVID-19. The tools of communication may shift, but the message will be the same. People demand respect, voice, and agency at the individual, community, national, and global level. Crisis breeds creativity. We can come out of this better, healthier, and more peaceful. But only if we try.

Rachel Locke is Director of Impact:Peace at University of San Diego’s Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice.


  • Rachel Locke

    Rachel Locke joined the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice as Director of Impact:Peace in July 2019. Rachel has extensive experience delivering evidence-based violence prevention solutions to some of the most difficult international contexts while simultaneously advancing policy for peace. Prior to joining IPJ, Rachel was Head of Research for violence prevention with the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. In this capacity, Rachel led coalition building and evidence curation with the UN, bilateral governments, the African Union, civil society and others to explore the challenge of delivering the 2030 Agenda targets for peaceful societies (SDG 16.1).

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