Webinar: COVID-19 pandemic – an opportunity or barrier to health as a bridge for peace?

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On May 28th 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO) and the Lancet-SIGHT Commission on Peaceful Societies through Health and Gender Equality co-hosted a webinar chaired by Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief at The Lancet. The webinar explored the relationship between health and peace in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic in conflict-affected countries in the Eastern Mediterranean region. 

The webinar began with opening remarks on the COVID-19 and conflict situation from Dr Ahmed Salim AL-Mandhari (WHO/EMRO), Dr Anders Nordström (Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sweden), and President Tarja Halonen of Finland. They raised the UN Secretary General’s call for a ceasefire, the devastating dual impact of COVID-19 and conflict such as in Yemen, the impact of COVID-19 on social trust, and disparities in the pandemic response between and within countries.

A panel of experts then discussed the impacts of the pandemic in specific countries and on conflict dynamics, the gendered impacts of the pandemic, and the opportunities and challenges for the health community to contribute to peace. The first session featured Dr Mamunur Malik (WHO Somalia), Dr Elizabeth Hoff (WHO Libya), Professor Zulfiqar Bhutta (Aga Khan University), and Professor Rita Giacaman (Birzeit University). They discussed how conflict is shaping the COVID-19 response in Somalia, Libya, and the occupied Palestinian territories; the pandemic’s impact on already weak health systems; how the pandemic is exacerbating conflict dynamics and may stall progress for peace; as well as the potential for a health response that addresses inequalities in a transparent, fair, and impartial manner to help contribute to peace.

The second session featured experts discussing opportunities for peacebuilding and factors that may impact if and how these gains are sustained. Dr Sinead Walsh (European Union Ambassador to South Sudan) raised the potential of the COVID-19 response to address conflict dynamics, such as by engaging women peacebuilders working across party lines, and supporting trauma healing and mental health. Prof Jennifer Leaning (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health), reflected on the societal fissures revealed by the pandemic, and the opportunity this provides to recognize and address inequality and failed policy. Ms Barrie Freeman (Peacebuilding Support Office of the UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs) discussed the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on women and shared several mechanisms the UN has to support peacebuilding, including the Secretary General’s Peacebuilding Fund. Dr Ahmed Obaid Al Sa’eedi (Minister of Health Oman) discussed Oman’s work with the government of Switzerland on a global Health for Peace (HoPE) initiative.

The policy brief (download here) summaries the themes raised by the participants and proposes considerations to understand and leverage links between health, gender equality and peace during the ongoing pandemic. The recording of the webinar is available online here.