By Safiya Ibn Garba, Director of Institutional Learning

It is said that there are two great “levellers” in life; birth and death. By leveller, I mean something that reminds us of the essential fact that we are all the same. I daresay this is true.

When someone passes away, we meet with those we haven’t seen or spoken to in a while and at that point in time, we all share in the grief. We share memories and just how much we will miss them. Death reminds us of our humanity and that we are all the same no matter what we have acquired or achieved in the world. It “levels” us.

At birth on the other hand, we are joyous about new life and are reminded that we are all the same when we are born; we cry the same, we come bare, with nothing in our hands. Birth also reminds us of our humanity. It “levels” us.

If every time death or life comes around and levels us, then why it is so easy for us to forget that we are all the same when it matters most? Is there a way to preserve that feeling so we can reach for it and put it to use in other circumstances?

So, what has COVID-19 got to do with this?

Let’s examine a few pandemics from this list of 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history.

The 1918 – 1920 Flu pandemic is believed to have left between 17 and 50 million deceased. The Ebola virus epidemic officially claimed 11,310 lives from 2013 – 2016, the H1N1 swine flu pandemic affected 70 million people and caused 18,500 deaths between 2009 and 2010. The Asian Flu pandemic claimed more than one million lives worldwide, and the Great Plague of London killed approximately 100,000 people. The most destructive pandemic in history, “The Black Death” resulted in the deaths of between 75 and 200 million people from 1347 – 1351.

The novel coronavirus is judged the first documented coronavirus pandemic in the world. There is an immense body of literature about the many epidemics and plagues that have taken over the world and caused widespread mortality, but this one is unique. The effects of COVID-19 on the environment, economy, and other sectors remain far reaching and at this point not fully quantifiable. But there is one set of statistics I would like us to think about a bit more: COVID-19, conflict, and peace.

Around the world, we have seen diverse responses to the pandemic by governments and the resulting reactions by citizens. Some responses and measures have induced high levels of solidarity and in others we have seen anger, frustration, and violence. In each case, every side has a story that has driven the actions and reactions.

In the UN Secretary General’s Remarks to the Security Council in April 2020 where he called for an immediate global ceasefire, he highlighted the dangers COVID-19 posed to peace and security including the:

  • Threats to further erode trust in public institutions, particularly if citizens perceive that their authorities mishandled the response or are not transparent on the scope of the crisis.
  • Economic fallout of this crisis that could create major stressors, particularly in fragile societies, less developed countries, and those in transition.
  • Postponement of elections or referenda, or the decision to proceed with a vote – even with mitigation measures and their potential to create political tensions and undermine legitimacy.
  • Uncertainty created by the pandemic creating incentives for some actors to promote further division and turmoil.
  • Threat of terrorism that remains alive and terrorist groups seeing a window of opportunity to strike while the attention of most governments is turned towards the pandemic.
  • Weaknesses and lack of preparedness exposed by this pandemic that provide a window onto how a bioterrorist attack might unfold and may increase its risks.
  • Fact that the crisis has hindered international, regional, and national conflict resolution efforts, exactly when they are needed most.

In light of the above and many other factors, could COVID-19 be used as an instrument to turn efforts for peace into a reality in light of our shared humanity? Could we use the leveller COVID-19 to remind ourselves that it is possible for us all to be affected by one thing and that if we all worked together, even in light of our differences, we could make a difference that will benefit us all?

With the deepest respect and condolences to all who have lost loved ones in this pandemic, do we not owe it to those we lost that their deaths are not in vain? Is COVID-19 a lost opportunity? Was it a gift wrapped in a disaster? Is the pandemic a chance to build real bridges rather than just air bridges?

Generations For Peace Director of Institutional Learning Safiya Ibn Garba during the 2019 Advanced Training promoting the importance of activism and working together

There isn’t one solution or answer to violent conflict around the world, so this is by no means a “just fix things” call to action. It is and can never be that easy. But it is a call for reflection. It is a call for conflicting parties to look inward and work together to transform the situation we all now find ourselves.

It is a time to remember and work together to save humanity with whatever it takes to make it happen.


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