The long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic may not be fully appreciated for some years.

In nations already experiencing conflict, food and political insecurities, and fragile economies, experts warn the pandemic may exacerbate and compound these dangers.

This Insight discusses the impact of the coronavirus pandemic in conflict-affected countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, looking at food insecurity, political insecurity and health.

Each conflict area has different dynamics and underlying factors and the degree to which the pandemic affects these will vary considerably.

Which are the conflict-affected countries?

There were at least 15 countries with active armed conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa in 2019, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Eight were classed as low-intensity, subnational armed conflicts: Burundi, the Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Niger, and Sudan.

Seven were classed as high-intensity armed conflicts: Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan.

Food insecurity

The UN Secretary General has warned of an impending global food emergency, with potentially 50 million more people pushed into extreme poverty across the world because of Covid-19.

Alongside the pandemic, farmers in East Africa are experiencing, “the worst desert locust outbreak in 25 years” and severe flooding. A July 2020 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) warns of the likely increase in numbers of people facing acute food insecurity in several African countries. Measures introduced to slow the spread of Covid-19, such as limitations on movement of labourers and livestock, export restrictions, and closed markets, provide fewer opportunities for farmers to sell perishable goods.

In Somalia, the locust invasion, flooding and dry spells, combined with an already fragile humanitarian situation, means the population without stable access to food is expected to triple from 1.3 million before Covid-19, to 3.5 million. Two experts writing for Foreign Policy have warned “the virus will likely compound Somalia’s chronic medley of miseries.”

Food insecurity is a driver of conflict. The UK Government has warned of the “potentially catastrophic impact” of Covid-19 in the Sahel, where there are already long-existing tensions between the farmer-herder communities. In June the UN said the pandemic is exacerbating the humanitarian crises in Mali.

The House of Lords discussed concerns over food security in East Africa in a debate in mid-July. On 23 July the UK announced a new £18 million aid package to help tackle the locust swarms in Africa and Asia.

Another deadly disease

The pandemic is affecting the ability of countries to treat other serious illnesses.

In South Sudan, the effect on an already fragile health system has led the UN to warn of a potentially devastating increase in deaths. This includes disruptions to vaccinations, maternal health services and routine treatment for diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea and pneumonia.

Several countries are already battling epidemics. The DRC recently declared that while one outbreak of Ebola in the east is over, another outbreak has been declared in Équateur province in the north-west.

DRC is also facing the world’s largest measles outbreak, which has killed 6,000 since the start of the year. Measles epidemics have also been declared in Chad and CAR. The medical humanitarian NGO, Médecins Sans Frontières Medecins (MSF) has warned the pandemic has: “created extra barriers to vaccinating children against the disease.”

In July, UNICEF and the World Health Organization warned of an alarming decline in the number of children receiving vaccinations worldwide because of the disruption in the delivery and uptake of immunisation programmes caused by the pandemic. The UK hosted a global vaccine summit in June and pledged the “equivalent of £330 million per year over the next five years” to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and is working to ensure routine immunisation programmes are maintained and restored.

Emmanuel Lampaert, MSF’s operations coordinator in DRC, points out the danger of a one-track focus on Covid-19:

Reducing vaccinations, nutrition support or malaria prevention in the face of a public health crisis will lead to other crises, making the situation even worse. Neglecting the other health issues would make us complicit in many more future deaths.

More political instability?

The FAO/WFP report warns socio-political instability could increase. The likely economic fallout of the pandemic, rising levels of unemployment (particularly among young people), loss of income and livelihoods, and inequality – may exacerbate further existing social discontent. The report warns: “levels of civil unrest risk being higher and having more destabilizing effects compared to recent years.” Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, the African Union Special Envoy dealing with the economic impact of Covid-19, has warned the pandemic “could reverse the gains of the last two decades.”

In Sudan, a lack of information from the government about the pandemic has, according to one Sudanese journalist, “left many wondering whether the government – an uneasy mixture of army generals and civilians – can be trusted.” Last year Sudan ousted its long-time ruler, President Omar al-Bashir (now on trial in Khartoum), and is now led by a transitional military/civilian government.

The UN Security Council (SC) also recognised the risk of Covid-19 to countries transitioning out of conflict and in post-conflict countries, warning peacebuilding and development gains could be reversed. The SC’s Resolution 2532 endorsed the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire as a result of Covid-19. Some groups in Sudan, Cameroon and CAR heeded the Secretary-General’s call.

How governments respond to the pandemic and implement restrictive measures may turn public opinion, which can provide an opening for non-state armed groups (this is not unique to Africa). Dr Farah Hegazi, a researcher at SIPRI, observed that where states have either been unwilling or unable to cope with the consequences of the pandemic:

Armed non-state actors have stepped in to the fill the void, providing people with the goods and services they need to survive. Such actions could potentially increase the legitimacy of those armed groups, while undermining the legitimacy of the state.

Further reading

About the author: Louisa Brooke-Holland is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in international affairs and defence.