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Act before virus fuels insecurity along borders

By Mohamed Guleid and Asfaw Kumssa | August 14th 2020 at 18:37:38 GMT +0300

What is the link between Covid-19 and conflict? Border communities along the Ethiopia-Kenya border are now embroiled in conflict and the virus seems to be playing a role because of its adverse impact on livelihoods.

The pandemic presents unprecedented challenges to public health, security and the global economy. Its socio-economic and political ramifications, short and long-term, are devastating. In Africa alone, the UN estimates that nearly half of all jobs could be lost, and nearly half of the global population could be living in poverty - on less than $1.90 (Sh206) a day - as a result of the pandemic.

By August 2, 2020, Ethiopia had about 18,000 infections and 284 Covid-19 deaths, while Kenya had 21,363 cases and 364 deaths. The concern is that in both countries, the infection rate is on the rise.

The pandemic threatens to wreak havoc and could trigger unrest and instigate a political crisis. Its implications are especially serious for cross-border communities whose capacity to contain the virus is extremely weak. The crisis will certainly disrupt humanitarian aid flows and limit peace building and conflict prevention. A case in point is the Ethiopia-Kenya cross-border programme, which was launched in 2015 by the governments of Kenya and Ethiopia in partnership with IGAD and UN to foster and promote peace.

With the outbreak of the pandemic, activities and programmes designed to address peace-building efforts and socio-economic empowerment ground to a halt. The closure of livestock markets, diversion of resources to fight Covid-19, flash floods and locust invasions, and limited trade and movement of goods, have hit the communities hard and escalated tensions and insecurity. This, therefore, requires urgent actions to contain the pandemic from creating havoc in these border regions.

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Currently, the spread of the disease in the border areas of Ethiopia and Kenya is modest, but if the current trend spreads into the densely packed urban centres, it may be virtually impossible to control. The dramatic economic slowdown and the closure of international borders will disrupt trade flows and exacerbate unemployment, which will severely damage the livelihoods of communities in border towns such as Moyale.

Propaganda campaigns

The pandemic has the potential to exacerbate an economic crisis, governance, and undermine social cohesion and fuel conflict, conditions that are conducive for the resurgence of violent extremist groups such as Al Shabab, which is already using the crisis to spread fear among communities and to recruit more foot soldiers from the cross-border areas. The extremists have stepped up propaganda campaigns.

Like other governments, the national governments of the two countries are in a catch-22 situation. On one hand, the economic impact of prolonged lockdowns and restriction of movement will have a devastating effect on the livelihoods of border communities. On the other hand, prematurely lifting restrictions could lead to new spikes in infections and cost the lives of many people. To navigate through this conundrum, the best strategy should be establishing a balance between the two risks, which should involve coming up with, and implement viable and realistic measures to contain and prevent to recover better.

The short and medium-term socio-economic impacts of Covid-19 would be devastating, and long-term recovery could be even more challenging. In response to this challenge, UN Secretary General António Guterres has emphasised that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide a pathway for countries to “build back better” after the crisis. These global goals urge countries to address poverty, health, inequality and many other challenges, while at the same time making sure that no one is left behind.

- Kumssa is a chief technical advisor at the UN, while Guleid is a former deputy governor of Isiolo County

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