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What research from conflict-affected countries can tell us about responses to Covid-19

Written by Mareike Schomerus

Covid-19 has given me a new perspective on ten years of research with the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC). Insights from conflict-affected contexts can shed light on some current challenges in western countries affected by coronavirus.

Europeans are incredibly lucky to largely not know what it feels like to fear for their lives due to war and violence. Yet suddenly, communities in Europe share characteristics with people who live in countries with violent conflict: coronavirus makes lives precarious and incomes unstable. It shows what it’s like when public services are underfunded, unreliable and insufficient.

Here are three insights, based upon how people respond in conflict contexts, that can also teach us about public reactions to Covid-19:

1. Identity matters. But it’s not as simple as being told who you are and what you need

Social media is full of advice on how to convince elderly parents that they are ‘vulnerable’ during Covid-19 and need to behave accordingly. Why do some elderly people ignore the advice given?  

Our research finds that development programmes often don’t reach their intended audiences because people only selectively or inconsistently self-identify with group identities.

For a healthy 80-year-old, their fitness might be how they define themselves rather than their age; therefore, the need for independence outweighs health concerns.

Development programmes make this mistake all the time: they equate designated group identity with designated need, creating a mismatch. 

In Uganda for example, a woman who is head of the family might be offered items, such as cooking pots or mattresses, due to being a member of the group identity 'female-headed household'. In contrast, she might actually identify as someone fighting for land rights and in need of legal help.

Over-relying on group identity to reach an audience tends to be ineffective. In the current emergency, where categories are the only tool available, it is necessary to pre-empt and outmanoeuvre the reasons people will cite to exclude themselves. 

2. Everyone’s reality is different

The current advice is clear: stay at home. Stay away from people. Don't travel anywhere by any means of transport unless you absolutely have to. It seems like straightforward advice, yet many don’t follow it.

For decades, development programmes have worked with the assumption that giving people good information will produce the desired behaviour. But this has never worked.

It is not the content of information that matters, but how people connect information to their own individual worlds.

In our research, we find that even when a situation improves – for example if security concerns significantly reduce – this does not automatically mean that people perceive it as better. The information might be clear; yet the reaction to that information differs depending on people’s memories, histories or perceptions of authorities. 

That is why having everyone stick to the same advice is tricky. Some people might simply not perceive the current Covid-19 situation in an appropriately urgent way. Equally, individuals may tailor their personal responses, by for example, cutting back on social contact rather than completely eliminating it.

Governments who want their advice to land need to take this into account. But being aware of our own perceptions and how they influence our actions is also important. Everyone can use this insight by asking themselves: 

  • What information shaped my choice? 
  • How did I evaluate this information? 
  • What part of my personal history has given me this perspective? 
  • Am I cutting corners because of my personal view? 
  • Do I need to adjust my actions for the benefit of others?

3. Empowering vulnerable groups is not enough

The outpouring of help in this crisis has been moving. Particularly vulnerable people (those who might live alone, have health issues or cannot afford to buy enough food) are now empowered to reach out to wonderful volunteers offering assistance. It helps a lot…but only for now.

Development programmes also often work with the concept of empowerment. This tends to have limited long-term success. Covid-19 makes visible why: empowering vulnerable individuals does not address the systematic causes of vulnerability. 

In Sierra Leone, efforts to address teenage pregnancies have almost entirely focused on empowering teenage girls on an individual level. Less attention is given to the long chain of social norms, power relations and poverty that makes teenage girls so vulnerable. Instead of forcing individuals to shoulder the burden for change, vulnerable people need others to help but they also need a system that supports them. 

This requires us to not only help the vulnerable but also demand that we live in a system that addresses the underlying causes of their vulnerability.

The relevance of post-conflict research for Covid-19

The SLRC’s insights come from ten years of research in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, South Sudan, Sri Lanka and Uganda. Understanding the mechanisms behind how people from these diverse contexts respond to crisis has enduring value for policy-makers and individuals.  

Western countries during and post-Covid share more traits with countries affected by violent conflict than they might currently realise. As governments will need to be trusted by their citizens to be effective, service delivery and how it is funded will need to be rethought. Even when we look back on this pandemic, these insights will continue to be relevant.