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Spreading disease, spreading conflict? COVID-19, climate change and security risks

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By Beatrice Mosello, Adrian Foong, Christian König, Susanne Wolfmaier, and Emily Wright


The COVID-19 pandemic has profound global impacts. Since the beginning of January 2020, there have been almost 30 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, and almost one million deaths, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). While all countries have been affected, COVID-19 is hitting especially hard those that were already struggling with poverty and conflict. The lockdown measures and travel restrictions caused millions to lose their jobs and incomes, exposed inequalities in access to basic services and resources, and heightened the risks to safety and human rights for many. What is worse, the full brunt of the pandemic may only be felt much later.

Many of the contexts affected by the pandemic are also experiencing the impacts of climate change, which have and will continue to exacerbate situations of fragility and conflict. There is widespread agreement among security experts that climate change is a risk multiplier and obstacle to peace. It adds to and compounds challenges such as increased resource demands and rapid population growth and urbanisation, thus exacerbating existing fragility and conflict risks. At the same time, climate change has not stopped for COVID-19 as the massive wildfires, record droughts and floods, unprecedented heat and storms that we have seen in 2020 remind us.

At this intersection of health, climate and conflict risks, four key pathways through which COVID-19 can exacerbate climate-related security risks stand out:

1. Increased pressure on livelihoods and resources. The combination of COVID-19 and climate change impacts can put additional stress on livelihoods and resources, and reduce adaptive capacity, which in turn can exacerbate conflict risks.

2. Negative impacts on migration as an adaptation strategy. Measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic can increase the precariousness of living and health conditions for migrants and refugees in host countries, while also restricting migration as an important coping strategy.

3. Weakened conflict responses and new opportunities for non-state armed groups (NSAGs). The impacts of COVID-19 can impede the delivery of humanitarian aid and obstruct peacebuilding and stabilisation efforts, while opening up new opportunities for the proliferation of NSAGs.

4. Increased risks in urban environments and violent protests. In poor urban areas, adding pandemic-related stress to climate pressures might increase the risk for violence and instability.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic offers another opportunity to talk about how interconnected risks, including those created by climate change, can contribute to insecurity and conflict. Taking these risks and their interconnectedness into account is essential not just to build back, but to build back better. This requires:

Integrated analyses of risks and vulnerabilities, using context-specific assessments and disaggregated data at multiple levels to capture the links between the impacts of COVID-19 and existing socio-economic, political and environmental drivers of fragility and conflict, including climate change.

Multi-sector and inclusive approaches that focus on promoting more resilient livelihoods, strengthening health systems, expanding social safety nets, and addressing exclusion and marginalisation, particularly in urban areas.

Additional and long-term funding from governments and international donors to support projects and investments that foster integrated approaches to simultaneously address climate-related security risks as well as COVID-19 impacts and overall health risks.

More attention to community-level action and organisations to capture their experiences in addressing interconnected risks and building resilience, and to inform multilateral and donor strategies.

A renewed commitment to multilateralism from governments which, despite being the first responders when crises hit, should overcome nationalist agendas and work within and towards international frameworks, drawing on the contributions of civil society, businesses, academia, and other sectors.