HUMANITARIAN CRISES MONITORING: SECONDARY IMPACTS
Written Evidence Submitted By Mercy Corps To The International Development Committee
- Over the past four months, the impacts of the pandemic on the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable people have worsened dramatically. People and communities who were already suffering from violence, inequality, and discrimination are bearing the brunt of this new crisis. In many places, the secondary impacts predicted are coming true.
- This submission builds on written and oral testimony submitted under the first phase of the inquiry. It draws on Mercy Corps’ experience responding to the COVID-19 crisis in 40 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, as well as Mercy Corps’ analysis of the secondary impacts of the pandemic in those countries. We have provided responses to two of the suggested areas and added a third on conflict-related impacts.
Non-coronavirus healthcare; the communities trust and engagement in healthcare provision:
- The widely discussed “infodemic” - the widespread misinformation about the virus - is not only hampering public health outcomes, but also contributing to conflict by fuelling fears and hostility across identity groups. In multiple countries, Mercy Corps’ teams have heard rumours that governments have invented COVID-19 to divert international assistance.
- In Myanmar, a pattern of hate speech and rumours persist on social media against “foreigners” or others returning from abroad, due to fears that these individuals may carry the virus.
- In Nigeria, announcements of new disease cases in recent weeks and months have fueled rumours that the pandemic is a hoax designed to enrich politicians. Cases of chloroquine poisoning have also been reported by medical centres as incorrect information spreads about a possible cure. Our COVID-19 response in Nigeria includes piloting a rumour tracker, a communications campaign using mobile phones and radio, and working with local governments to help bridge the communication gap with communities.
- We urge the UK to improve community trust and engagement in healthcare provision by:
○ Strengthening the transparency and accountability of local, regional and national government institutions tasked with providing healthcare, including by ensuring civil society organisations, especially those representing women and girls, can help shape the design and implementation of responses to COVID-19 at all levels.
○ Increasing investments and support for initiatives that monitor citizens’ perceptions of government and misinformation, while promoting access to timely, reliable and trusted sources of information and actively combating disinformation.
Economy and food security; economic performance, development and level of ODA:
- Livelihoods and food security has continued to be one of the areas most impacted by COVID-19 and related measures. Our analysis (up to mid-September) shows these trends are continuing, indicating that despite early signs of economic reopening, food security will likely continue to deteriorate in many places, thereby requiring ongoing humanitarian support for vulnerable populations.
- Between mid-August and mid-September, all of the 32 countries which Mercy Corps works in and surveyed reported either deterioration or no improvements in food security. The issue remains particularly pressing in Northern and Western Africa. In Sudan, Mali, Niger and Zimbabwe, food insecurity has continued to worsen - a trend which has continued unchecked over the last 2-3 months. In Northeast Nigeria, women are reported to be particularly affected as they are going without food to allow husbands and children to eat.
- Mercy Corps’ analysis shows that access to goods and markets continued to worsen in most countries across the East, Central and Southern Africa region from mid-July to mid-September and particularly in CAR, which has reported worsening access for 3 consecutive months.
- Between mid-August and mid-September, nearly half of 32 countries which Mercy Corps works in and surveyed, reported that prices of essential goods and services had increased - a trend fairly consistent with earlier in the summer. Data reported by Mercy Corps teams from July-September clearly indicates that the pandemic has generally had the effect of diminishing the size of the informal sector.
- In order to protect existing progress from the economic and food insecurity impacts of COVID-19, the UK and its partners should intentionally layer medium and long-term interventions into crisis response. This will ensure we are not just meeting urgent food security needs and reducing harmful coping, but preventing crises from escalating and protecting sources of resilience that help communities mitigate future shocks. This should also include preventative and anticipatory action on food security that address the underlying drivers of food insecurity including conflict, poor governance, climate change, marginalisation and inequality through effectively funded, evidence-based approaches. It is more vital than ever to focus this work in fragile and conflict affected places that are vulnerable to food insecurity.
- We urge the UK to:
○ Meet urgent needs and reduce harmful coping so households can meet nutrition goals, and preserve assets and livelihoods, for example through cash transfers for the most vulnerable and supporting governments to scale up social protection mechanisms. In addition, ensure humanitarian access through diplomatic efforts, leading efforts to call out and address humanitarian access constraints that thwart efforts to respond to food insecurity and other needs.
○ Prevent the crisis from escalating through support to local market and social systems to strengthen sources of resilience to the shocks and stresses defining protracted crises and simultaneously help to strengthen the broader market system. Invest also in early warning systems.
○ Transform the underlying drivers of food insecurity by prioritising cross-government conflict prevention and peacebuilding investments, empowering disadvantaged groups, and using a combination of ODA and diplomatic efforts to address poor governance, climate change, and political barriers.
Impacts on Social Cohesion, Violence and Conflict
- Mercy Corps has taken evidence - from over 40 countries where we work - on how COVID-19 is affecting conflict, and vice versa. In some places we are seeing immediate effects such as violent protests and intercommunal violence. In others, the impacts are not yet visible or fully realised. We have noted in the countries where we work that the effects of COVID-19 on conflict are felt in four core areas:
- Fraying social cohesion: COVID-19 is increasing stigmatisation and scapegoating across identity groups. In July, our teams in 22 countries reported that the pandemic has contributed to deteriorating relationships between local groups.
○ In Yemen, the pandemic has contributed to deteriorating relations between Yemenis and vulnerable migrants from the Horn of Africa, who are blamed for bringing the virus into the country.
○ In Nigeria, movement restrictions have forced herders to remain in place, increasing competition with farmers over natural resources such as land and water and intensifying conflict between primarily Fulani, Muslim pastoralists and Christian farmers.
○ A Mercy Corps survey of community leaders in Iraq’s Ninewa and Anbar governorates in August 2020 indicated that 65% of people believe the level of cooperation and trust in their community has changed since COVID. Stigmatisation towards Iranian and Iranian-affiliated people has also increased as they are seen as a primary source of infection.
- Deteriorating relationships between state and society: In some cases, local populations have seen COVID-19 as an opportunity for government corruption or exclusive and repressive behaviour, leading to increased mob violence and protests. Our latest analysis shows that in the Middle East and the Americas, 75% of the countries surveyed reported worsening public perceptions of the government in the past month. Some armed opposition groups (including violent extremist groups) are also filling the void that governments are creating, capitalising on poor responses and grievances to expand their influence.
○ In Ethiopia, tensions between political factions have deepened following the decision to postpone the August 2020 elections due to COVID-19. This presents a great challenge to the ongoing democratic transition in Ethiopia.
○ In Mali, protests against the management of COVID-19 and those demanding the departure of the president—which culminated in a military coup on 18th August —are symptomatic of the growing dissatisfaction of the population.
○ In Iraq, citizens are blaming the government for the mismanagement of the outbreak- while also criticising the heavy restrictions that have been implemented. 85% of respondents to our survey reported they were unhappy about how the government is dealing with COVID-19.
- Proliferating mis-/disinformation: (As described in paragraphs 3-6).
- Increased economic scarcity and competition is further fraying social cohesion and in some cases directly encouraging theft and looting. Past research shows that inequality is a strong motivator for joining armed opposition groups.
○ In Niger, there has been an increase in intercommunal clashes around certain water points, as tensions escalate over increasingly scarce communal resources due to adverse economic impacts of the pandemic mitigation measures.
- Even before COVID-19, the world was already behind on SDG16. It is more vital than ever that donors, including the FCDO, actively prioritise and increase investments towards the prevention of conflict and resolution of chronic crises, addressing both the long term drivers and immediate triggers of conflict.
- We encourage the UK to:
○ Address drivers of conflict and violence - both those that predate the COVID-19 crisis, and those exacerbated by it. This requires a doubling of investments in conflict-prevention and peacebuilding programming.
○ Make international peace and security a top level objective of national foreign, security and defence policy and establish a whole-of-government strategy for peacebuilding and conflict prevention informed by the Building Stability Framework. The Integrated Review and new FCDO is an opportunity to rethink the UK approach to tackling instability.
○ Ensure all COVID-19 responses and strategies are conflict sensitive and focus on fragile and conflict affected states, where we will see the vicious cycle play out.