The rapid global spread of the 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.

Last updated September 28, 2020

COVID-19 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 created opportunities for violent extremist groups like ISIS to gain ground and advance their agendas. Speaking at a United Nations Security Council video conference in August, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned that “the pandemic threatens not only hard-won development and peacebuilding gains, but also risk exacerbating conflicts.” Conflict has continued unfortunately, and in some cases it has increased.

  • 34 conflict-affected and fragile countries could see up to 1 billion COVID-19 infections and 3.2 million deaths, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
  • Conflict and violence accounted for 4.8 million new internal displacements in the first half of 2020, a million more than in the first half of 2019. The greatest increases were in Syria, where nearly 1.5 million were recorded, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with 1.4 million, and Burkina Faso with 419,000.
  • In Syria, more than 70% of the country’s health care workers have fled the country. Violence has destroyed 26 of 111 public hospitals and reduced the capacity of another 27, leaving half the country’s public healthcare system in shambles.
  • Yemen faces similar challenges, with half of its health facilities dysfunctional and 18% of the country’s 33 districts without a single doctor. Lise Grande, the head of the UN’s humanitarian operations in Yemen, said that without additional support “the death toll from the virus could exceed the combined toll of war, disease and hunger over the last five years.”


Strict travel restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 have made it difficult for aid workers and humanitarian assistance to reach those in need. This has also created opportunities for terrorist groups to coopt the crisis for their own gain, enabling them to make in-roads against resource-strapped governments and shore-up political legitimacy.

Groups including al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates in sub-Saharan Africa have used the pandemic to justify their cause, calling the disease itself a “solider of Allah.” U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) commander Stephen Townsend has warned, “al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab and ISIS have announced that they see this crisis as an opportunity to further their terrorist agenda.”

  • Violent attacks in sub-Saharan Africa between March and August were 40% greater than over the same period in 2019.
  • In Iraq, the Islamic State executed 566 terrorist attacks in the first three months of 2020, nearly twice as many as in the same period last year.
  • In Lebanon, Hezbollah has committed 5,000 doctors, medics, and nurses to fight the pandemic. They’ve also offered dozens of ambulances and dispatched members of the Islamic Health Society to spray disinfectant in public spaces.


The pandemic has also stalled global diplomatic efforts to achieve long-term peace and stability. While some have suggested that the advent of “Zoomplomacy” is accompanied by many benefits, others warn it can facilitate brinkmanship and prevent diplomats from having truly private conversations. As Estonian Ambassador Sven Jürgenson said, “WhatsApp chats can’t replace the corridor diplomacy for getting consensus.”

Concerns of transmission among military communities have also hindered peacekeeping deployments and security cooperation and assistance. “We are seeing attempts by terrorists and other groups to capitalize on the pandemic to undermine State authority and destabilize Governments,” said UN Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations Jean-Pierre Lacroix.

  • In Somalia, the disease has largely restricted major ground combat operations against al-Shabaab, rendering the government and the African Union unable to mount offensive against the increasingly active terrorist organization.
  • As Moussa Dominique Bangre from Catholic Relief Services recently said about Mali, “There is a serious strain on public resources, and COVID-19 will further impact the country’s capacity to respond to growing violence.”
  • Attacks on healthcare facilities and workers have also escalated since March with the International Committee of the Red Cross reporting 208 COVID-19-related attacks against health care workers in 13 countries.

Despite these challenges, there have been some positive signs. MIT Professor Barry Posen has even argued that spread of COVID-19 makes war between major powers less likely.

  • Despite a recent flare-up between Venezuela and Colombia, Bogota and Caracas had their first official contact in more than a year to discuss a joint health-care response.
  • The two rivals in Libya agreed to a ceasefire citing a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Written by Sung Lee and Zach Wehrli

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