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Editor’s note: This article was first published by the Finn Church Aid.

You have all seen the pictures: At the conclusion of a peace process, when representatives of conflict parties shake their hands. Peacebuilding is about bringing people (back) together. It is about reuniting people. Sitting at the same table. Reducing distance.

Covid-19 is tough on us in so many ways, it changes everything (at least temporary) and it also changed how we make peace. Our usual responses to overcome disagreement or conflict – like important symbolic acts of shaking hands, or even hugging – are indeed out of the question. Shuttle diplomacy – flying people to a neutral location to discuss and negotiate – feels like a relic from old times.

Peacebuilding practitioners, like so many others, need to find other ways of working during this crisis. But first: why talk about peacebuilding now – isn’t Covid-19 a health question and everything else comes only after?

It is true and justified for health to be the centre of attention, yet as Covid-19 changes the world we know on a global scale, the virus affects all societies deeply. The virus does not care about sectors. The virus’ impact on societies is highly likely to differ a lot from country to country, in terms of timing and depth, and this relates eventually also to questions of violent conflict and security.

In fragile context, where Finn Church Aid mostly operates, institutions and sectors are not prepared for a crisis such as this, and there are many countries in which even small shocks can make the difference between fragile peace and violent conflict. Even though the virus makes all countries appear to sit at the same table, in practice we are not: some countries will be much more affected than others, with a risk of the crisis translating into renewed violent conflict.

Ray of hope

Even when times are challenging, even near-future predictions remain very blurry, and solutions difficult to find, let’s get to work and see what we can do. Let’s turn the spotlight to things that are hopeful and that may help us get to see beyond the layers of crisis looming at the horizon:

  1. UN Secretary-General António Guterres’s appeal for a worldwide cessation of hostilities amid the COVID-19 pandemic. At least one conflict party in twelve countries has responded to the call for a global ceasefire. In other parts of the world, external actors may also reduce their hostilities, and even though this may be temporary, it may lead to a new window of negotiations. It is central to support and strengthen peacebuilding where possible, as the underlying conditions for peace are indeed not in support of a more peaceful world. Rather alarmingly, an increase in typical conflict drivers such as inequality, poverty, weak governance, or missing opportunities for political participation may indeed increase the risk of violent conflict in many societies.
  2. Physically distant, yet digitally close and social. Many societies are forced to see each other more online, even though many people prefer meeting face to face. This may lead to a different level of how we can be comfortable with each other online, as the next best thing after seeing someone in person. In a way, people around the world become digitally closer, and this may translate into opportunities for dialogue and conflict transformation. It is – though – also a challenge, because only half of the world is online, which may lead to even more negative consequences for disconnected people in quarantine.
  3. The initial response to Covid-19 has been a national and inward-looking one in many countries. But let’s forget about the absurd examples – the global bidding war on medical masks or totally ill-timed reduction of funding for WHO – for a moment. Covid-19 can still become the case proving that global collaboration (for example in overcoming this crisis and its consequences) benefits all.

The threat of violent conflict

We – as global, currently digital peacebuilders – need to find ways to react on those points above. Finding ways to sustain fragile peace even in contexts that will be hit hard by this crisis, in societies with very limited own coping mechanisms.

We need to build on all networks that we have, the formal and informal. Here, for example, religious actors may be able to reach out to those that are digitally disconnected. Faith leaders may indeed reach the difficult to reach. Or young peacebuilders with their ability (as youth do) to rethink how else we can communicate, even when it is difficult. Or women responding digitally to support victims of gender-based violence, an issue amplified by families not being able to leave homes during the quarantine.

Yes, fighting against Covid-19 has started with health. Some of the key actors during the initial crisis, such as the Robert Koch Institute, Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) and so on, have shown that fighting a pandemic you need to share information and learn from each other very quickly. When dealing with an invisible enemy that spreads exponentially at first, there is no time to waste.

As digital peacebuilders, utilizing our networks, we also need to learn from this crisis. Because when the storm after the virus hits, disrupting societies further through the threat of violent conflict, we need to be at our best, supporting people to sustain peace, rebuild trust in institutions and help societies recover. However admirably resilient those societies are – support will be needed.

Matthias Wevelsiep works for the Network for Religious and Traditional Peacemakers Secretariat as Senior Operations and Program Manager.