As the world is still navigating the dangerous shoals of the Covid-19 pandemic, some of the most vulnerable regions are being ignored and no serious response can reach them. Places where war, armed conflicts and lack of state control on large swaths of national territories have left national healthcare systems severely weakened even before the pandemic. These may prove to be the regions where all the conditions might come together to create fresh outbreaks of the epidemic. The world’s healthcare cover is far from uniform, and many conflict zones have torn such large holes in it that already over-stretched ministries of health have no influence there. Indeed, their staff are sometimes seen as agents of the enemy. The planet’s disputed regions are also often beyond the reach of the international agencies which are responsible for the world’s health.
In many countries enduring conflict, up to half of their population lives outside the control of the state, under the authority of armed non State actors (ANSAs) or non recognized entitities. In a time of pandemic, when a rigorous, systematic approach to healthcare is required, the gaps that these regions represent in the responses to Covid-19 are ticking timebombs.
Geneva Call has been engaging with ANSAs around the world for 20 years. As part of its mission to encourage those groups to respect humanitarian norms and the rules of war, it has managed to gain access to the most inhospitable territories. It has become a privileged intermediary with many ANSAs, but unfortunately, it is too often the only one. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Geneva Call has been urging ANSAs to appreciate its full import and danger, both to themselves and the populations under their control.
It is essential to reinforce the following components of the multipronged efforts against Covid-19: firstly, to offer legal and technical advice to the leaders of ANSAs on their responsibilities in a time of pandemic, while raising the awareness of frontline combatants about their obligations to ensure, maintain and provide access to essential healthcare services; secondly, to then launch targeted health and hygiene programmes in the zones controlled by those ANSAs; thirdly, to support healthcare and humanitarian agencies by offering Geneva Call’s services as an intermediary with ANSAs to enable or facilitate the distribution of essential medical material; and finally, to track and record the anti-Covid-19 measures taken by ANSAs around the world in order to keep the humanitarian community well informed.
Geneva Call has already succeeded in convincing many ANSAs to instore hygiene and medical precaution measures. In other contexts, however, the organisation has sought to curb ANSAs’ instinctive impulses to impose stringent rules of confinement, backed by force, which might prove disastrous to many particularly fragile civilian populations. This is especially true when people must regularly leave their homes for reasons of basic survival, like for instance bringing home enough drinking water or tending to their crops.
States must understand that the world’s fight against Covid-19 may be lost in the remote areas where there are gaping holes in healthcare cover. It is thus vital that humanitarian actors be allowed access to armed non state actors, without the fear of falling foul of rigid anti-terrorism laws. The equipment necessary for containing the virus should be allowed to reach every person in every corner of national territories, even if their control is heavily disputed.
The most well-organised groups rapidly grasped the scale of the challenge posed by the pandemic and have already committed themselves to put in place containment measures. Others simply do not have the means to carry out a proper evaluation of the situation. However, they do have sufficient trust in our colleagues to listen to and take action on their advice. In stark contrast, a very limited number of ANSAs look at the pandemic through the lens of their ideology. They interpret the virus as heavenly retribution on their enemies, confining them to barracks, and as a tactical advantage which must be seized. These groups have rejected any talks on the subject. Such cases require a little inventiveness to get past the cadres and down to the frontline combatants who must have an understanding of humanitarian norms and be regularly reminded of their obligations. This can be done using modern instruments, such as electronic games, telephone apps, short promotional videos and social networking tools which fighters in the field are so keen on.
The risks posed by Covid-19’s arrival in camps for displaced persons and refugees close to the world’s conflict zones has probably exceeded even the most pessimistic forecasts. Taking immediate steps with the actors who have some semblance of control over those territories—whatever side they are on—is a moral imperative.
Alain Délétroz is the Director-General of Geneva Call