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Banal Terrors: Pandemics and the Ordinary Business of War

The twaddle of framing the confrontation of the coronavirus as a “war” has proven to be a cheapening, misguided exercise. France’s president Emmanuel Macron has deemed COVID-19 the “invisible, elusive enemy”, making it sound like an adept guerrilla specialising in sneak attacks. China’s Xi Jinping has gone for the language of the “people’s war”, suggesting that the virus has certain class-ridden notions. President Donald Trump has characterised himself as “a wartime president”.

Implicit in such language is the idea that nothing else matters; the resources of humanity will be marshalled in finding a vaccine and stopping the spread of infections. Lives will be saved; the vulnerable will be spared. But as the pandemic spreads, actual wars continue being fought with gusto and viciousness. “The fury of the virus,” stated UN Secretary General António Guterres on March 23, “illustrates the folly of war.”

Such folly, it would seem, continues to prove captivating. The threat of COVID-19 has failed to penetrate the boardrooms behind murderous conflict. Military commanders remain engaged; the battle planners have not been retired or put on lengthy sabbaticals. In Yemen, matters of famine and killing continue in the usual insouciant way one has come to expect. The Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis continues with its ferocious air raids, one that has seen the destruction of the country’s infrastructure over the course of five years. Last week, 19 air raids were conducted on the capital Sanaa. Attempting to keep up appearances in the conflict, the Houthis had launched ballistic missiles at Riyadh and southern parts of the kingdom over that weekend. The UN Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths’ assessment is troubling. “Yemen needs its leaders to focus every minute of their time on averting and mitigating the potentially disastrous consequences of a COVID-19 outbreak.”

In Syria, war might be ebbing but COVID-19 has made its dreaded arrival. Official accounts suggest that figures are low: 10 so far. But conditions of conflict do little to confirm them. A health system patchy and in some cases ruined will have little clout in containing a pandemic, though individuals such as Samer Khodr, head of Damascus hospital, insist that both private and public hospitals are ready. Official narratives of courage and ability must be maintained. Besides, various powers continue to conduct a shadow conflict, with the US concerned of Iran’s influence.

The head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), Mark Lowcock, is not so confident having told the UN Security Council that, “All efforts to prevent, detect and respond to COVID-19 are impeded by Syria’s fragile health system.” Ideal conditions exist for a rapid transmission: poor sanitation; an almost total absence of social distancing; the challenges of acquiring medical supplies; vast internal population displacements. “After a terrible violence,” explained the UN Special envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen to the UNSC, “an uneasy calm prevails on the ground; and now, Syrians face a new potentially devastating threat in COVID-19.”

In Libya, matters have been put on a more intense heat. The coronavirus risk there is far from negligible (there have already been 17 cases, with one death, reported), with a large internally displaced populace and 700,000 refugees providing ideal sites for transmission. Tarik Argaz, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Libya, gave Al Jazeera an account that would have alarmed those in the business of public health. “Detained asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable and exposed. They are staying in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions … and have access to very limited health assistance.”

Nationwide curfews have been imposed from 2pm to 7am and there are restrictions on movement. But this has not given pause to the civil strife that continues to plague the country, with the Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli facing the ever bolder General Khalifa Haftar with his Libyan National Army.

The chance for creating more mayhem has not escaped the determined general, who has been assaulting Tripoli since April last year. Even with the risk of pandemic spread, the city found itself the subject of intense bombardment last week. Hospitals have been targeted and Haftar’s forces continue the oil blockade that has seen a sharp spike in prices. War remains the general’s idée fixe. This has left the country in woeful state of preparation to combat any pandemic. Badereldine al-Najar, head of the Libyan National Centre for Disease Control, is both resigned and blunt in assessment: “In light of the lack of preparations, I now consider Libya not in a position to confront this virus.”

The continuing allure of war says much about an animal species that can still manage killing its own members even as it claims to fight a non-animal threat. Much of this goes to show that the words of Guterres – “It’s time to put armed conflict on lockdown” – seem like feeble utterances before the bullet and the battery.

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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