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In the world’s conflict zones tackling Covid-19 is going to take something that is often in short supply: trust

by James Cowan
Thursday, 21 May 2020 13:31 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Major General James Cowan is chief executive of landmine clearance NGO The HALO Trust.

While we have been focused on Covid-19 some of the world’s most intractable conflicts have been raging on, bloodily, in the background.

In Libya, fighting has escalated since January with wounded fighters from rival factions in the east and west of the country filling the hospitals to overflowing point. Some health facilities planned for Covid patients have been shelled. Local people are in lockdown not just by edicts from the health authorities, but because cities like Sirte – already battered by years of fighting – have been changing hands as the frontline moves.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban has been clear that its peace accord is with the United States, not with the Afghan Government. Despite calls for a ceasefire, there are clashes almost daily with the Afghan National Army. It took an attack as shocking as that on a maternity hospital, probably by ISIS, not the Taliban on May 12 to make international headlines. Fighting has intensified across the country in the aftermath of the attack that killed 24 people, including new mothers and babies.

Compared with Libya and Afghanistan, the 70-year conflict in Myanmar is effectively invisible. Ceasefires for Covid have held in places, but clashes continue in Rakhine State between the military and the Arakan Army. International Crisis Group has described Myanmar’s IDP camps as a potential tinderbox for Covid transmission: “They are dangerously overcrowded with severely substandard healthcare and inadequate access to clean water, sanitation, and other essential services,” says an ICG report.

Officially Myanmar has had six deaths from the disease, but a negligible testing capacity and the inaccessibility of the population means it is likely much more prevalent. Meanwhile in Libya some have declared the virus already defeated.

In Afghanistan, the public health minister estimated in March that 25 million Afghans might become infected with the virus, but so far what has really hit the country hard is the economic impact of the lockdown. In countries like Afghanistan hunger will drive people from their homes whatever the infection rate.

The HALO Trust is one of the largest international NGOs in Afghanistan. We’ve been there for over 30 years removing landmines and other explosive debris. You might ask what Covid has to do with us?  It takes a huge logistical apparatus to move over 3,000 deminers around the country and we are very well used to dealing with risk. That is why we have been mobilising our trucks and ambulances to support food aid and health education projects. We’re doing similar work in Libya and Myanmar as well as in often-forgotten, unrecognised territories like Somaliland and Nagorno Karabakh.

Most important, HALO is trusted on the ground by all parties to the Afghan conflict and we can operate in Taliban-controlled areas of the country. The spread of Covid isn’t going to be stopped by the shifting frontlines of conflict and in places like Helmand or Sirte HALO is one of the few humanitarian operators that has the community consent and local knowledge to safely cross frontlines.

The sudden health and economic shock of Covid is going to require an urgent humanitarian response. In many ways this will be a come-as-you-are crisis, where boots on the ground and immediate access to logistic capacity will be paramount. Humanitarian agencies who stay in their silos will squander the assets they hold. Government donors who keep them in their silos will miss the opportunity for immediate action in some of the most fragile places in the world.

As the economic downturn kicks in there will be a siren calls in the West for ‘charity to begin at home’ and aid spending to be cut. That argument must be countered – and loudly. As Europe and the US ease their lockdowns, governments will be alert to signs of the second wave. In a global pandemic, national borders are a flimsy defence – if any at all. The fact is that unless we can combat Covid in the world’s hotspots, it will simply come back to the West and claim even more lives.

There are many military metaphors being banded around at present, but as a former soldier allow me this one: wars are not won at home.