The rapid global spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated that no matter how successful America is at fighting this pandemic here at home, we will never stop this threat unless we’re also fighting it around the world. In this series of issue briefs, the USGLC takes an in-depth look at the global response and COVID-19’s impacts on vulnerable populations, global development and diplomacy, and the future of U.S. global leadership. Read more from our series here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has limited efforts to provide assistance and mitigate conflict in ongoing crises, making countries in conflict among the most vulnerable to the virus. It has also allowed governments to limit citizens’ freedoms and violent extremist groups to advance their agendas. Alongside these challenges, refugee and displaced communities have grown by record numbers over the past two years. While vaccines and therapeutics are being distributed across the world, vaccine hesitancy, challenges to delivery, and obstacles regarding access bring into question how quickly aid will reach and be implemented in these fragile states and vulnerable communities.

  • In 2021, fatalities from political violence increased by 12% compared to 2020. In fact, political violence was deadlier in 2021 in every region except for Europe and the Middle East according to the Armed Conflict & Event Data Project (ACLED).
  • The global refugee population has more than doubled in the past decade, and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported that the number of people forcibly displaced increased 4% in 2020 and rose to a new record high of nearly 82.4 million people, more than 1% of the world’s population. This number is expected to grow even more in 2022.
  • The International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants Project recorded 5,895 deaths on migratory routes worldwide in 2021, surpassing pre-pandemic figures and making last year the deadliest year on record for migrants since 2017.


Although many hoped that the pandemic would ease international tensions and lead to ceasefires, data from ACLED reveals that conventional conflicts like Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, and Afghanistan continued to rage or even worsen.

  • Civilians were more frequently targeted by political violence in 2021 than 2020, with ACLED reporting a 12% increase from 33,331 events to 37,185. Civilian fatalities also grew by 8% with the greatest increases recorded in Myanmar, Palestine, Colombia, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso.
  • In Syria, only 64% of hospitals and 52% of primary health care centers are functioning, and an estimated 70% of the health workforce has fled the country.
  • In Yemen, only half of all health facilities remain functional. The pandemic has exacerbated the situation, with 15% of the functioning health system repurposed for COVID-19. There are only 10 health workers per 10,000 people, and 67 out of the 333 districts have no doctors.

In Ukraine, there have been more than 70 separate attacks on hospitals, ambulances, and doctors with the number increasing on a “daily basis,” according to the WHO. Health experts fear resurging threats from not just COVID-19 but also polio and tuberculosis.


The pandemic has also been accompanied by an increase in violent extremism, with U.N. counter-terrorism chief, Vladimir Voronkov, warning that terrorist groups are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic and appealing to new “racially, ethnically, and politically motivated violent extremist groups.”

  • There was a near doubling in violence linked to militant Islamist groups in the Sahel in 2021 and militant Islamist group violence set a record of over 5,500 reported events in Africa.
  • Coastal West Africa in particular is experiencing a growing threat of violent extremism, with militant Islamist group violence in Burkina Faso, Mali, and western Niger increasing by 70% in 2021.
  • report from the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanction team found that threats posed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and Al-Qaida “continued to rise as the pandemic inhibited forces of law and order more than terrorists… The economic and political toll of the pandemic, its aggravation of underlying drivers of violent extremism and its expected impact on counter-terrorism efforts are likely to increase the long-term threat everywhere.”


The COVID-19 pandemic has not had as deadly an impact on refugee communities thus far as originally anticipated. However, the pandemic’s second and third order impacts have had a huge effect on the refugee community, increasing displacement and limiting opportunities for work and resettlement. In their 2022 Global Appeal, UNHCR wrote that “2022 will be shaped by the world’s response to three threats: conflict, COVID-19, and climate change. Without urgent action, UNHCR anticipates the number of people under its mandate will continue to swell, forcing us to respond to new emergencies…”

  • UNHCR projects that there are 102.6 million people of concern worldwide who need their assistance in 2022, including almost 22 million refugees and 52 million internationally displaced people.
  • The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) estimates that more than three quarters of displaced and conflict-affected people have lost income since the start of the pandemic.
  • Between March 10, 2020 (the day before the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic) and February 28, 2022, over 120,000 movement restrictions were implemented around the world.
  • Data from May 2021 suggests that in 99 out of 152 countries, migrants in regular situations have been included in national vaccination and deployment plans, compared to only 50 countries for migrants in irregular situations.
  • Approximately 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted in low- and middle-income countries, which face rising inflation, financial challenges, and fragile heath systems.


While conflict-ridden states and refugee communities are in dire need of support, attacks on aid workers and shortages in funding complicate these efforts.

  • The leading database on humanitarian workers, the Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), reported that 2020 was the deadliest year for aid workers in many respects. 484 people were victims of a major attack, and of these people, at least 117 were killed.
  • According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, over 848 incidents of violence, harassment, or stigmatization against health care workers, patients, and medical infrastructure related to the COVID-19 pandemic were recorded from February to December of 2020.
  • The UN has appealed for a record $41 billion to help the world’s “most vulnerable and fragile” in 2022, an increase from the $35 billion requested for 2021 and double the amount sought four years ago.

Last updated April 2022

← Back to COVID-19 Resource Center