We live 3,900 miles from each other in Nigeria and Iraq. Violent conflict is what we know in our lives and in our work for peace. Now we face a pandemic. We know from watching Ebola take hold in Democratic Republic of the Congo that disease fuels conflict, and infection spreads amidst chaos, crackdowns, and fear.
What awaits us as disease and conflict meet at our doorstep?
At the time of this writing, Iraq has 2,818 confirmed cases and 110 deaths. Nigeria has some 4,399 cases and 143 deaths. These numbers are likely inaccurate and underreported. Our people don’t know who to trust.
The lack of trust between citizens and the state is the legacy of violent conflict. Our social contract – the one that is supposed to provide us with security from the state – has been broken too many times for our people to believe they will be cared for as this pandemic sweeps through our towns and cities.
The frayed fabric of our societies isn’t unique to Iraq and Nigeria. Our colleagues in Syria, Venezuela, Mexico, Lebanon, and Yemen will tell you the same thing: Conflict has left our countries unprepared to respond to COVID-19.
Our people are turning to God, rather than government for fear they will be disappointed – again.
Iraq has suffered under waves of conflict starting with the eight-years long Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s up through the US-led intervention in 2003 and our fight against ISIS. When the roads closed, the shops, restaurants and public places closed. Iraqis lost their jobs. ISIS cells are using this pandemic – as only the morally bankrupt could – for a new beginning. Their resurgence means the state is spending more on security than healthcare.
Many Iraqi communities are helping each other across sectarian lines in the face of COVID-19, but that new spirit of trust does not necessarily extend to Iraqi politicians. The government defaults to security measures to solve problems, so it has set out to defeat COVID-19 with checkpoints and curfews.
Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram and internal conflicts means our military too has been the priority. Even before terrorism came here, public health was ignored. Our frontline caregivers who would coordinate a COVID-19 response have been under-resourced for years. The police lack training for interacting with citizens, and we need them urgently now to keep us safe where we live.
Almost as many Nigerians have been killed by police brutality in responding to COVID-19 than by the virus itself. Citizens in the states of Delta and Abia recently ambushed police officers in retaliation for abusive tactics. As virus cases are increasing so is crime. In the cities, armed robberies are up.
At one town’s police station, reports of gender-based violence went from three reports per week to six reports per day. The pressure is too much to bear, especially for women and the poor. Citizens are chanting in the streets that they would rather die of coronavirus than the “hunger-virus.”
Instead of fixing what is broken, the Nigerian government has decided to ease the lockdown in some states. It is an understandable decision, but eventually leaders in conflict countries like ours will be forced to pay attention to the systems that have been neglected.
Rebuilding the social contract takes time - something we don’t have. Our governments need to earn our trust fast if we are going to be spared the worst of COVID-19. They could start by communicating. Give citizens credible information on the pandemic, on the intentions of security forces, on what we should do and when for our safety.
If the police need to enforce a lockdown, they should do so nonviolently. Indiscriminate arrest and detention should stop. Allocate resources to community groups and civil society, so we can help each other. Support the health sectors, because late is better than never in a crisis like the one we’re facing.
Small pockets of good governance show what’s possible. Some states in Nigeria like Lagos and Ogun had swift responses to COVID-19 with testing and contact tracing. Rather than deploy the police on the streets, an awareness campaign explained why we needed to stay home. Complaint channels were opened for reports against abusive security personnel.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, government officials have been sacked for breaching quarantine laws. Hunger hotlines were set up to help people under lockdown. These efforts build trust.
Long term, we want our governments to prioritize citizens by investing in the institutions that provide for our health and well-being. Military and police are an essential piece of that puzzle, especially with foes like Boko Haram and ISIS to contend with. But we need their protection during this crisis as part of a deeper government response.
This pandemic will tell us who the legitimate leaders are. They are those who extend a (frequently washed) hand to their citizens in partnership to defeat a common enemy.
Isioma Kemakolam is the Justice and Security Dialogue Program Coordinator for the US Institute of Peace in Nigeria.
Salah Abdulrahman is the Senior Project Assistant for the US Institute of Peace in Iraq.