Impact of COVID-19 on peace support operations in Africa

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has had an impact on peace support operations (PSOs) in many ways. Not only has the increase and spread of the pandemic affected PSO personnel inside their respective field missions in terms of stress, morale, command and control of forces, but it has also disrupted their routine activities, including confidence-building activities and the rotation of troops after completing their tours of duty.

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MONUSCO/Michael Ali
MONUSCO/Michael Ali

As of 3 August 2020, COVID-19 is showing signs of a steady increase in six countries that are hosting peacekeeping missions. According to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), the COVID-19 situation update in African countries hosting peacekeeping missions is: Central African Republic (4 614 cases), Democratic Republic of the Congo (9 115), Mali (2 541), South Sudan (2 429), Somalia (3 220) and Sudan (11 738). In view of these statistics, the more infections in countries where there are field missions, the greater the risks of contamination for PSO personnel in the mission areas. The unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases has created an atmosphere of panic and fear among government institutions, local populations and PSO personnel in their respective areas of operation.

COVID-19 and the subsequent preventative measures to curb its spread have affected some confidence-building activities between peacekeepers and the local population in mission areas.

The spread of COVID-19 and its containment measures have exposed PSOs to various structural and contextual challenges within their operating environment. For instance, many African countries in general, including the above-mentioned six currently hosting PSOs, do not have sufficient medical infrastructure. Therefore, the insufficient medical kits to assist those infected by COVID-19 and the absence of healthcare facilities in host countries are among the underlying challenges for PSOs to carry out their duties effectively and execute their given mandate. Another underlying challenge affecting PSO personnel in field mission areas is the mindset and stigmatisation of the local population vis-à-vis the pandemic. In some African host countries, people still think that COVID-19 does not exist in their countries, and that foreigners – including peacekeepers – are the ones importing the disease. For instance, in South Sudan, citizens attacked United Nations (UN) camps after UN staff were diagnosed positive with COVID-19.

Thus far, some of the immediate effects of the COVID-19 measures on the PSOs’ routines have included:

  • Suspending the rotation of forces amidst COVID-19: The free movement of people was curtailed as one of the preventive measures in response to the spread of COVID-19. International borders were temporarily closed and international flights were suspended. As a result, the rotation of PSO personnel was put on hold until 30 June 2020. The aim was to prevent peacekeepers becoming a vector in the spread of the virus, both in mission areas and in their home countries. In an unfriendly environment, characterised at times by harsh climatic conditions and unpredictable security situations, delaying the rotation of troops has triggered some challenges. Although most PSOs have adapted well to the suspension of force rotation, it has had an impact on command and control, the morale of personnel, stress management and local confidence-building.
  • Command and control-related challenges: The decision to suspend the rotation of troops had an impact in many ways, especially on the command and control of forces in their respective mission areas. The PSOs are usually conducted in time and space, which means that peacekeepers are deployed in mission areas for a period between six months and one year before being replaced. Field missions are stressful, and peacekeepers have to demonstrate a high level of endurance and resilience during their rotation. A delay in rotation inevitably increases their stress levels and affects the morale of soldiers.
  • Morale and motivation of troops: Depending on doctrine and the training acquired by soldiers, preventive measures such as delaying the rotation of troops may have negative effects on morale and motivation. In turn, the low morale of soldiers could have an impact on motivation and performance in the field missions. The longer the rotation of troops in the mission area is delayed, the lower the morale and the poorer the performance of peacekeepers.
  • Stress management-related issues: PSOs are by their nature stressful, and the outbreak of COVID-19 and the impact of the pandemic will have worsened this situation for peacekeepers. Preventive measures against the pandemic such as the temporary suspension of troop rotation, increasing statistics of active COVID-19 cases and deaths, and the lack of medical infrastructure are some of the factors contributing to stress-related issues among peacekeepers in field missions. Currently, the increase of stress amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled PSO field missions in Africa to consider hiring stress management counsellors to assist their personnel.
  • Local confidence-building activities: In mission areas, confidence-building between peacekeepers and the population is an enabler for the successful conduct of PSOs. The higher the number and frequency of contact between peacekeepers and the local population, the higher the level of confidence-building and better the image of peacekeepers vis-à-vis the population they are meant to protect. COVID-19 and the subsequent preventative measures to curb its spread have affected some confidence-building activities between peacekeepers and the local population in mission areas. For example, the application of preventative measures such as the restriction of movement and meetings being reduced to only 15–30 people, with at least one metre of social distancing between people, has resulted in a decrease in the number of confidence-building activities generally conducted by PSOs.

In conclusion, the spread of COVID-19 has turned the entire world upside down, disrupting well-established processes both in the private and public spheres. PSOs currently deployed in Africa are not immune from COVID-19 and its multiple impacts. Assuming that COVID-19-related preventative measures remain in place for the next couple of months or more, the social, political and economic situation in some countries will become more dire, increasing the possibility of old intrastate conflicts reoccurring, while new ones may emerge. In this context, PSOs will have to be deployed and contingency plans put in place under conditions of an extremely stressful and unpredictable environment.

Claude Bizimana is the office coordinator in ACCORD’s Country Office in the Central African Republic (CAR). Before joining ACCORD, he served as consultant during the preparation for negotiations in Khartoum between the Government of CAR and 14 armed groups in February 2019. He has worked as a consultant for the United Nations Institute for Training and Research in Mali, focusing on the G5 Sahel countries. He also previously served with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSCA) from December 2014 to February 2016, based in Kaga-Bandoro, Sector Centre, and worked with the African Union Mission in Sudan/Darfur (AMIS) from 2005 to 2007.

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