The COVID-19 pandemic affects us all, but not equally

Jillian Rafferty, Armed Conflict and Civilian Protection Initiative 

Since the pandemic began, over 32 million people around the world have been infected with the novel coronavirus, and about one million of those infected have died. In the early days, hospitals in Wuhan, Lombardy, and New York City were quickly overwhelmed, their resources stretched to the breaking point. Frequent hand-washing and constant mask-wearing became the norm. Those who could stayed home, relying on stable WiFi to connect with work and with family.

But in many parts of the world, the reality of COVID looks quite different. After all, the pandemic affects us all, but it does not affect us all equally.

People living in areas ravaged by war face a distinct set of often insurmountable challenges in the context of the pandemic. And that is especially clear where war involves the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

For the past year, states have been engaged in a multilateral process to negotiate a political declaration that would address the humanitarian harm caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. The pandemic has added a renewed sense of urgency to that process, providing even greater impetus to complete the negotiations of a strong declaration that reduces the devastating impacts of this destructive practice.

There are many kinds of explosive weapons, including aircraft and mortar bombs, artillery shells, missiles, and rockets, among others. Explosive weapons are primarily designed for use in open areas—on battlefields—where the blast-and-fragmentation zone they create is unlikely to include civilians or other prohibited targets.

Unsurprisingly, when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, their effects extend beyond any legitimate targets they aim to destroy. That is all the more true for explosive weapons with “wide area effects,” which result from a large blast-and-fragmentation radius, the inaccuracy of the weapons, and/or the delivery of multiple munitions at once.

When explosive weapons with wide area effects are used in cities, towns, and villages, they foreseeably injure or kill civilians and damage or destroy civilian infrastructure, such as water pipes, power stations, and hospitals, not to mention homes, workplaces, and schools.

The use of explosive weapons in populated areas causes devastating damage to critical civilian infrastructure and to civilian lives and livelihoods, creating a variety of direct, indirect, and reverberating effects. Source: International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 2015.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Network on Explosive Weapons  (INEW), and others have been vocal in calling out the reverberating harms caused by the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas—and in highlighting the escalation of those harms in the context of COVID-19. During a recent webinar organized by Ireland, ICRC Vice President Gilles Carbonnier noted that “when healthcare facilities are impaired, when homes are destroyed, [and] when sanitation is undermined” by explosive weapons, even “simple preventive measures like handwashing” are rendered impossible.

In a joint appeal published in May 2020, Mark Lowcock (UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs), Izumi Nakamitsu (Under-Secretary-General and High Representative for Disarmament Affairs), and Robert Mardini (Director-General of the ICRC) raised a similar alarm regarding the effects of explosive weapons in the context of COVID-19. They wrote that “for victims of this kind of warfare, who are already reeling from injury, disability, displacement and insecurity, the threat of COVID-19 pandemic is too much to bear.” In addition to addressing damaged healthcare and sanitation infrastructure, the appeal pointed out the public health dangers of damaged electric grids and unstable internet connections—often the two biggest factors in determining the public’s access to reliable information about the virus and its spread.

The harms caused by using explosive weapons with wide area effects are well documented—and they are nothing new. But those harms are horribly compounded as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. As UN Secretary General António Guterres said several months ago, “the pandemic is amplifying and exploiting the fragilities in our world.” Nowhere is that clearer than in areas of armed conflict.

Here’s the good news: countries from all around the world have been working closely together for the past year to negotiate and finalize a new political declaration that would commit states to better regulate the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas. That process was in its final stages when the pandemic hit, with a signing ceremony originally scheduled for May 2020.

Though the process has faced delays due to restrictions on in-person gatherings during the pandemic, states remain clearly committed to making meaningful progress. Ireland, which has led the process to create the political declaration, has pledged full participation once negotiations resume, ensuring an inclusive process in which states, international organizations, and civil society all play an active and valuable role.

To keep up the momentum in the interim, Ireland earlier this month organized a webinar on explosive weapons, current developments around explosive weapons and COVID-19, and plans for finalizing the political declaration.

In a keynote address, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and Minister for Defence Simon Coveney spoke about the importance of protecting civilians from the harms inflicted by explosive weapons, and about the imperative to finalize the political declaration. The webinar’s high-level opening panel featured Carbonnier, Nakamitsu, and Dr. Renata Dwan from the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research. The remaining panels included presentations by numerous states and civil society organizations.

Though details of the declaration remain to be ironed out, the webinar’s overarching message was clear: finalizing the declaration and better regulating the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas are paramount issues for our time, and ones even more urgent in the context of COVID-19.

Richard Moyes, managing director of Article 36, which co-founded and coordinates INEW, sees the current moment as a galvanizing one. Moyes believes that the “shared experience of the pandemic” will make the international community “all the more determined to develop and strengthen protections for the most vulnerable people in society.” Noting that the final negotiations will be convened “as soon as conditions allow for full participation,” Moyes says that the political declaration presents “a real opportunity for the international community to agree on something of long-term humanitarian significance.”