COVID-19 Could Present Protection Issues in Conflict Zones


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NEW YORK - The U.N. secretary-general said Wednesday that the safety of civilians in conflict zones had been further threatened by the coronavirus.

"Civilians caught up in violence now face a new and deadly threat from COVID-19," Antonio Guterres told a virtual meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the protection of civilians in conflict situations. "The pandemic is amplifying and exploiting the fragilities of our world. Conflict is one of the greatest causes of that fragility."

COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus. More than 5.6 million cases have been confirmed worldwide, with upwards of 350,000 deaths, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.

The United Nations has warned that the pandemic has the potential to devastate conflict-affected countries and overwhelm already weak health care systems. The virus also could disproportionately affect vulnerable populations within conflict zones, including refugees, displaced persons and the disabled.

Thousands of civilians killed

Even before the virus, the situation for civilians in war-torn countries was bleak.

In a report this month, the secretary-general said more than 20,000 civilians had been confirmed killed or injured in 2019 as a result of attacks in conflicts in just 10 countries, but he noted the real number actually was much higher.

Among those 10 countries, Afghanistan had the largest documented number of casualties, with more than 10,392 civilians killed or injured by improvised explosive devices, ground fighting, airstrikes or other tactics. Women and children accounted for more than 40% of the victims.

Also, among countries with the highest casualties were the Central African Republic, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen.

The U.N. chief called for a global cease-fire in late March to help focus attention on fighting the pandemic. The effort has received widespread verbal support, even from some nonstate armed groups, but it has translated to little concrete change on the ground in many conflict zones.

Attacks on health care workers

There also was a surge last year in attacks on health care facilities and their personnel, an especially troubling trend amid a global pandemic. The World Health Organization recorded the killing of 199 health care workers in 2019 in more than 1,000 attacks. That's a 20% increase over 2018.

The pattern is continuing. In the weeks since March, the International Committee of the Red Cross has recorded 208 COVID-19-related attacks against health care workers in 13 countries where they operate, its president told the Security Council.

"At a time when they are most needed, helpers are under attack," ICRC President Peter Maurer said. "Health systems are targeted, health workers are abused."

He also expressed concern that in some places, emergency health measures had the potential to become "abusive tools" to control a population's movement or withhold services, including any potential therapeutics or a vaccine.

"We fear that some groups, perhaps those considered 'the enemy,' may be excluded from lifesaving measures," Maurer said. "For example, any vaccine distribution in volatile and contested places will be difficult, but it must be available to all equitably."

The ICRC chief also scolded the 15-nation Security Council for political divisions among key members, which have complicated and even hobbled humanitarian efforts in some countries, including Syria and Yemen.

"The divisions in this council on critical concepts of humanitarian law and work, notably access to populations in need, are increasing the suffering on the front lines," Maurer said.

He said it was not up to the council to tell humanitarian organizations who is in need, but rather to allow them to do their work impartially, independently and transparently.