Reaching breaking point: What COVID-19 means for people living in fragile places

People line up six feet apart to keep from spreading COVID-19.

As the world continues to grapple with COVID‑19, it is easy to forget that for some people, the pandemic is just one more crisis on top of existing crises. Even before COVID‑19, a myriad of challenges including hunger, extreme weather events, violent conflicts, and poor governance were already holding communities back in some of the fragile places where Mercy Corps works. Now, those existing challenges are making fragile contexts even more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic and are hindering humanitarian assistance, conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts. For this reason, it is more urgent than ever that international donors prioritise fragile and conflict-affected states.

Mercy Corps’ latest report “COVID‑19 in Fragile Contexts: Reaching Breaking Point” highlights some of the most severe and long-lasting impacts of COVID‑19.

A looming hunger pandemic

Even before COVID‑19 struck, global hunger was on the rise. Now, the pandemic is jeopardising economies, healthcare, and food systems on a global scale, and is likely to have the most severe impact on vulnerable groups in fragile places. The UN estimates that the impact of COVID‑19 could push an additional 132 million to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020, with the spectre of famine in three dozen countries a dangerous possibility. A Mercy Corps assessment from June found that in the Somali region of Ethiopia, 75% of households had already reduced their food consumption as a result of COVID‑19. In the longer term, the combined effects of COVID‑19, the measures adopted to control it and the global economic downturn could - without urgent and large-scale action - result in consequences for food security of a severity and scale unseen for more than half a century.

Fewer jobs, more inequality

The longest lasting global impacts from COVID‑19 will likely be economic. Mercy Corps’ COVID‑19 Rapid Market Impact Report showed that small businesses and informal workers are being hit particularly hard, as they lack formal registrations and connections to adapt their businesses and do not benefit from any social safety nets or unemployment services. The impact is greatest on women, young people and displaced groups. Lebanon, for example - a country which was already facing a growing economic and banking crisis pre‑COVID‑19 - is now facing businesses closures, high unemployment, with nearly one out of three unemployed, and a lack of social safety nets for informal workers, who make up an estimated 55 per cent of the workforce.

Two presenters address people sitting at tables during a seminar on coronavirus disease 2019.
Even before COVID-19, Yemen was experiencing the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. We’re training volunteers to raise awareness and share important information in their communities.

Violent conflict on the rise?

COVID‑19 is amplifying key causes of conflict such as weak governance, economic inequality and deficits in public trust. The risk of conflict will likely increase as the virus continues to spread, in the short term at a local level, through restricted access to resources, and at multiple levels in the medium and long term as economic impacts unfold and populations become frustrated with government responses. One recent projection anticipates an increase in violence in fragile states due to the exacerbating effects of the pandemic, with thirteen countries likely to experience new conflicts in the next two years. During COVID‑19, as with other epidemics like Ebola, misinformation has consistently increased in most fragile places. In Nigeria there are rumours that the virus is not real and that corruption is rife among government and health workers, and in Iraq, community mistrust of the government is at an all-time high with 85% of respondents to a recent Mercy Corps survey saying they are unhappy with the government response. In many other places, the proliferation of misinformation is leading to increased tensions, and could potentially result in more violence.

Gender equality: From bad to worse

Existing gender inequalities are already being further deepened as women and girls bear the brunt of the pandemic: from health to security, employment to social protection. At the same time, women are largely absent from decision-making and leadership roles in responses to the pandemic. This is especially true in fragile contexts where, on top of discriminatory gender norms, women can face additional barriers to participation, such as personal security. For example, in Nigeria where levels of female participation in politics were already low, there has been a sharp rise in gender-based violence both inside and outside the home in recent months, posing an increased risk of violence towards women.

Three people harvest vegetables from a garden in the democratic republic of congo.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we’re helping families set up ‘permagardens’ to address the lack of access to quality food resources, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What can be done?

As we tackle the immediate health and economic impacts of COVID‑19, the international response must not overlook the opportunity to help prepare and support communities to face the next, inevitable crisis.

Based on our research and experience operating in the most complex crises globally, we see four areas that the global COVID‑19 response must include to break the vicious cycle of fragility:

  1. Support local markets: Market systems play a vital role in helping communities cope with the immediate impacts of the crisis and recovering some form of stability. Immediate support to help people meet basic needs should be paired with financial support to vendors, traders, and micro-lenders, to keep markets functioning, essential businesses running, and food and goods available.
  2. Promote peace and good governance: Investment in conflict prevention and peacebuilding should be increased, particularly given that less than 2% of official development assistance in fragile states is currently devoted to conflict prevention and peacebuilding. This has increasing importance in a COVID‑19 world, where disinformation, erosion of public trust and broken economies can dramatically heighten the grievances that drive violence against both government and other groups.
  3. Invest in climate adaptation in fragile states: Climate change remains a grave threat yet, a new report shows wealthy countries are leaving the most vulnerable behind when it comes to climate finance. Donors must ensure money reaches fragile states and climate vulnerable countries so they can adapt to the impacts of climate change and build resilience in the long-term.
  4. Put women and girls front and centre: Without addressing the specific needs of women and girls and leveraging their expertise, the response to COVID‑19 will be less effective, and progress towards achieving gender equality will be slowed.

Even as COVID‑19 is already beginning to erode some of the progress made in recent years in many of the world’s most fragile places, if we act now and redouble our efforts, we still have an opportunity to reduce the pandemic’s impacts on the most vulnerable.

COVID-19: Help protect vulnerable communities