Huanan Market

COVID-19, Armed Conflict, and the Wildlife Trade

A woman pushes a wheelbarrow past the closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China on January 27, which has been linked to cases of coronavirus. (Getty Images AsiaPac)

Research on disasters and pandemics in conflict zones has long demonstrated that conflicts make societies more vulnerable to disasters through four main mechanisms: destruction of infrastructure, diversion of funding, restriction of movement, and damage to the social fabric. In conflict situations, disaster response can also be used for political and military gains. While disasters may sometimes reinforce peace negotiations or lead to ceasefires—as shown by certain groups in Colombia, the Philippines, and Cameroon that have committed to ceasefires in light of COVID-19—many combat operations continue elsewhere.

Another less obvious link between conflict and disease pandemics is poaching and the illegal trade of endangered species. It is well established that armed conflict drastically increases the level of poaching and illegal trafficking of endangered species. Such animals are often poached to feed armies or illegally trafficked to raise revenue to fund armed groups, and impoverished populations in conflict zones often have no alternative to wildlife hunting in order to sustain their livelihood. Wildlife trafficking, mainly driven by Chinese demand, is one of the most profitable illegal industries in the world, with connections and ramifications across the planet.

Scientists have long underlined the increasing risk that zoonotic diseases pose for global health, particularly in the context of ever-expanding human encroachment into natural habitats and increased globalization. The pangolin—at once the most often illegally hunted animal in the conflict-affected forests of central Africa and Myanmar and the most poached mammal in the world—has been linked to COVID-19. Latest scientific research has identified coronaviruses in pangolins seized in anti-smuggling operations in southern China. Tougher restrictions against illegal trafficking of endangered species—possible sources of other novel coronaviruses—should be implemented to prevent zoonotic transmission.

While stricter regulations in wildlife trading are needed for obvious public health reasons, prohibition is far from a silver bullet. Bans will also be difficult to implement in countries affected by conflict and fragility, which typically have weak and under-sourced state institutions with no capacity to prevent illegal trafficking of endangered species. Conflict regions lack food, clean water, adequate sanitation, shelter, healthcare systems, and other basic necessities, which increases the affected population’s exposure to infection and disease.

Fragile and conflict-affected countries are therefore a breeding ground for epidemics, and their populations are extremely vulnerable to the impacts thereof. Thus, it is of global interest to find durable solutions within these contexts. A triple nexus approach, joining up humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding efforts, seems to be the most appropriate to address this type of situation, and three ways forward are suggested.

First, United Nations peacekeeping missions can more directly support efforts to prevent poaching and illegal trafficking of endangered species. While peacekeeping forces are adapting to this new pandemic context, they can play a more active role in curbing illegal wildlife trade, given the threat it poses for global health and the connection with armed conflict. Law enforcement efforts in zones known to be hotspots for poaching can be encouraged, and political economy analysis could help to clearly identify illegal wildlife networks. A stronger Security Council emphasis on illicit wildlife trading as a threat to global health, together with due diligence guidelines regarding to its legal trade could reduce the propagation of potential viruses.

Second, restrictions, bans, and policing need to be accompanied by durable development initiatives to be effective. Development actors, increasingly working in conflict zones, are well equipped to invest in and promote alternative livelihoods for local communities dependent on bushmeat and the illegal trafficking of endangered species. In addition, development banks can support national systems for public health preparedness through flexible loans and grants to provide quick response in times of pandemics. The World Bank’s COVID-19 response plan, which will complement its existing insurance-based Pandemic Emergency Financing Facility, is a good example of available financing systems that can be used as soon as the first signs of potential pandemics appear.

Third, engaging with non-state armed groups (NSAG) which are involved in poaching and/or who control territory with large outbreaks of COVID-19 may help to reduce the spread of the viruses and prevent future pandemics. Typical engagement may include awareness raising around hygiene, sanitation, and regarding the risk of future animal-to-human disease transmission. Such engagement can be facilitated by humanitarian actors who have experience working with these groups.

Interestingly, some NSAGs have already acted to respond to the COVID-19. Criminal gangs in Rio have imposed curfews to limit the spread of the virus, the Islamic State has provided guidance to deal with the virus, and Hezbollah has mobilized thousands of  doctors, nurses, and paramedics to fight the virus. Building on such efforts and networks will be useful to recover from this ongoing pandemic and prevent, or minimize the impact of the next one.

In summary, recent data shows that the majority of the world’s poorest will be living in contexts of conflict and fragility in the next decade. Those contexts drive 80 percent of all humanitarian needs and they reduce GDP growth by two percentage points per year, on average. COVID-19, and previously Ebola, have clearly demonstrated how countries affected by conflict and fragility can be—through their multiple vulnerabilities to disasters—breeding grounds for pandemics.

Thus, there is a need to strengthen the coherence between humanitarian, development, and peace efforts to effectively reduce people’s needs, risks, and vulnerabilities in order to “leave no-one behind” in these contexts of conflicts. As we have painfully realized, viruses do not respect borders. One mundane event in a market in Asia or in a remote forest in central Africa can have devastating consequences for the entire global population. Pandemics like COVID-19, and situations of armed conflict, cannot be addressed in isolation.

Colin Walch is a protection delegate at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and a research affiliate at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University. The interpretations and conclusions of this post are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the ICRC.