As COVID-19 cases appear in the Middle East and Africa, USIP’s Nancy Lindborg talks about opportunities for peace amid the humanitarian and security risks posed by an outbreak. “The hope is that everyone uses this opportunity to put down their arms and think differently about conflict,” says Lindborg.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.


Tim Farley: The U.S. is obviously trying to figure out how to contain the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus, here in the U.S., but that does not mean we should take our eye off the ball internationally. We'll talk about that now. Nancy Lindborg joins us, president of the United States Institute of Peace tweeting @nancylindborg. Nancy, welcome back. Thanks for being on POTUS today.

Nancy Lindborg: Good to be here with you Tim. Glad you're staying safe there.

Tim Farley: We are indeed. It's not the kind of thing we hear quite as much about. We do hear Great Britain, and of course Germany with Chancellor Merkel, and today we heard that Prince Charles, evidently, has tested positive for COVID-19, but we don't hear as much about places like Yemen, Venezuela, South Sudan, and Somalia. But you're saying we should be focusing on at least understanding and watching these places. Why so?

Nancy Lindborg: Well, we have been talking a lot about the struggle here in the U.S., the difficulty to get protective gear, to get tests. It is infinitely worse in the kind of places you just named Yemen, Venezuela, Syria, Somalia, places where the healthcare systems have been not only decimated by violent conflict, but in places like Syria and Yemen, systematically targeted, so that they literally have no intensive unit, , beds or respirators or protective gear. UNICEF estimates 3 billion people lack access to hand washing facilities, and these are places that have those 25 million refugees and 40 million internally placed people we've been talking about, where social distancing is really not an option. So, we're starting to see the spread of the virus move across the Middle East and Africa. There are cases reported now in 43 of the countries throughout Africa, and they are just far, far less prepared to address it, to prevent it and certainly not to treat those who come down with it.

Tim Farley: And if we sometimes, in this country, are concerned about a gap in, in the arc, our trust of our leaders, I can only imagine it's even worse than some of these countries.

Nancy Lindborg: You know, I ran the USAID task force for the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. And one of the things we quickly learned is that Ebola, of course, is much more deadly, but it's quite easy to avoid through behavior change. People were not understanding and hearing those messages for how to stay safe because they so deeply distrusted their government. They had emerged from several decades of conflict, and they just didn't believe what the central government was saying, you know. So they continued to do very unsafe practices, and that was coupled with the data was so imprecise. It was hard really to understand what was going on outside of the metropolitan areas. Both of those lessons, and both of those conditions, apply very much to this huge swath of fragile States across Africa and the Middle East.

Tim Farley: Nancy, obviously there's a humanitarian concern here. Is there also a security component to this?

Nancy Lindborg: There absolutely is, because, again, you're seeing the possibility of this pandemic, you know, sweeping through countries that are already struggling with very weak and illegitimate governments where how the governments respond could deepen those social fissures and exacerbate simmering conflicts that already exist. It's interesting, in Nigeria for example, the government has actually responded pretty quickly. They have a health system that enables them to get out and issue those messages and do some of the lockdown practices. And there's been an interesting backlash where people are saying, “Hey, if you can be so proactive about these kinds of measures, how come you're not able to be more proactive in the basic social services that big parts of that country do not receive from their government?” And we're seeing, in places like Sudan where they have just had this incredible sweep of people power that overthrew this quite repressive regime of decades, that that transition is imperiled now because of the inability of people to continue to move around, some of the threats that the repressive security forces will come back in, and we’ve seen that, that amazing year of people power that so many of those movements that were seeking to hold their governments accountable have been silenced by the virus because it's just unwise to go out and do street protests these days. So there's this whole dimension of conflict that will complicate, you know, the lack of infrastructure and health systems and threatened that there could be renewed social unrest on top of a devastating pandemic.

Tim Farley: Nancy Lindborg is with us, president of the United States Institute of Peace. And, and obviously in your job, a lot of what you do is aspirational. You're kind of a global glass half full kind of person. So I guess there are some opportunities, even though there are challenges with the, with moments like this.

Nancy Lindborg: Yes. So let's end with a, a little more of a moment of hope. And we heard on Monday that the UN Secretary General Guterres made a call for a global ceasefire. And he said, you know, we have a common enemy of the virus to fight. Now is the time to lay down your weapons. And while it may sound, you know, like a Pollyanna-ish call, in fact, we just heard that yesterday the guerrilla group, the long fighting guerrilla group in the Philippines has laid their arms down in response to the the call. And you know, I was very involved with the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, and recall that that long running conflict in Indonesia, within the province of Aceh, was resolved after that significant disaster. In 2011, U.S. Institute of peace published a book called Pandemics and Peace, by the author William Long, who looked at a number of case studies in which these kinds of public health crises in conflict zones, in fact, did result in new kinds of cooperation, new levels of joint action across usual fault lines of conflict and, you know, one of the ones that still continued to resonate has been in the Middle East. If you remember, in 2006, there was this outbreak of the bird flu there and, Israeli Palestinian and Jordanian health officials came together to share information to prevent that spread. And they continued through the outbreaks of 2009, so that all three jurisdictions were able to come together and have a more successful effort. You know, the hope is that that will continue today with the Israelis and Palestinians and the Jordanians. They certainly need to be very vigilant. An outbreak, in a place like Gaza, would be absolutely devastating.

Tim Farley: Interesting in the week that we saw the vice president, I'm sorry, the Secretary of State Mike, Mike Pompeo visiting Afghanistan. We see the possibility of the Taliban, also, alleging, or pledging, to allow safe passage for health workers.

Nancy Lindborg: That would be, that would be wonderful. And of course there's a very fragile but encouraging peace process underway in Afghanistan. It would be terrible for that tofall apart. And if the Taliban are willing to make those kinds of gestures, we should welcome it. You know, the reverse of that, of course, is what Al Shabaab is doing in Somalia, where they are not transmitting the health message messages to areas under their control. And we saw, of cours,e in 2012 how they restricted humanitarian access. So that Somalia tipped into famine. You know, this is an opportunity to understand that there's a greater enemy that all of us have this common threat from the kind of pandemic that health officials have feared for decades, you know, and easily transmissible, you know, airborne disease with the fatality rates that we're seeing.

Nancy Lindborg: And it's nowhere near the Ebola levels, but they're significant. And even our health facilities are overwhelmed. So what will happen in these fragile States is devastating to contemplate. And the hope is that everyone uses this opportunity to put down their arms and think differently about conflict. Estimates are that we spend $13 trillion on violent conflict globally. That's a UN number. You know, it's a wiggly statistic, but it gives you a sense of the magnitude. $13 trillion. Think if we were able to repurpose that at the face of this economic and health crisis that we're facing right now.

Tim Farley: Nancy, as always, thank you for joining us on POTUS.

Nancy Lindborg: Thank you, Tim. Thank you for still being there.

Tim Farley: Yes, thank you. And thank you for being there. Nancy Lindborg, president of the United States Institute of Peace, joining us this morning to discuss the international effect of the COVID-19 coronavirus. She is tweeting @nancylindborg.

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