What does Coronavirus mean for peace?

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Human behaviour is difficult to predict at the best of times. It’s even more difficult when people are forced to re-evaluate their priorities and change their habits during a pandemic.

We’ve already experienced the selfishness that leaves supermarket shelves devoid of toilet rolls, pasta and tinned foods as behaviour becomes less rational. On the other hand, we’re also seeing more people make sacrifices for the common good and mobilising themselves to look out for their neighbours.

The fact is we are still nearer to the start than the end of this global crisis, and its impact on peace and violence is difficult to predict. So, what are some of the issues that – as Christian peacemakers – we will be looking out for in the months ahead?

Importance of relationships

First, as a relational organisation, we believe that having constructive, energetic and diverse relationships across communities at all levels is foundational to any peaceable society. Right now, as a result of social distancing and the anxiety that the crisis brings, we’re starting to see our usual relationship structures be strained in ways we’ve never seen before, and many will fear the separation and isolation that lies ahead.

Yet we are also seeing people come together right now in new and amazing ways. This crisis is already teaching us that we must learn to approach our challenges differently and more collaboratively. We now have an opportunity to radically transform how we think about and ‘do’ community, and turn that into a permanent shift in our thinking and behaviour. Can we continue to pull together, to find new ways of building community, and put in place stronger foundations for the future? It will be a challenge, once the crisis is over, not to return to ‘business as usual’ but this is a chance we need to try and seize.

Absence of conflict or peace?

We also need to remember that absence of conflict is not the same as peace. The root causes of division will not magically disappear because people are staying at home or keeping themselves to themselves, for example.

In the UK, lockdown takes people off the streets which, in principle, reduces the opportunity for violence and could lead to a fall in knife crime. But we don’t yet know how long isolation will last, how people will respond during an extended period, and how well and how sensitively rules will be communicated and enforced by authorities.

Social distancing could generate an increase in frustration, mistrust and suspicion that only manifest themselves later on and a long period of confinement could even lead to social unrest. There’s also a risk that some threats move inside, with a rise in domestic violence behind closed doors. These are all things we must watch out for.

A lot to process

Whatever happens next, the coming months will bring a great deal of anxiety. We will all have a lot of processing to do. The effects of collective trauma could take some time to emerge.

Yet one positive consequence of the crisis in Brixton is that we’ve been able to have much more open discussions with the people we work with on a range of subjects such as fear and panic, the importance of community and mental health – conversations which some people may not ordinarily have. These cut to the heart of some of the root causes of conflict. We hope that these more open conversations will continue – and become a permanent part of our fabric of personal and public debate.

Poverty and inequality

Fourth, it’s clear that many households will feel a sharp economic shock as a result of this crisis. Sadly, it’s the vulnerable and marginalised who will feel the effects most.

In general, poverty and inequality are now more likely to increase. And we know from our experience that these are two of the root causes of conflict in Ghana and Brixton respectively. Any exacerbation only heightens the risk of violence – and even if that doesn’t follow immediately, there’s a real danger it could happen later on.

The effects of this crisis will not be short-lived and how effectively and flexibly governments (and others in power) respond over the next few months will significantly help to shape the long-term impacts.

Looking to the positives

Even in the midst of the current chaos and uncertainty, however, we see much to be encouraged about.

In Brixton, it’s been great to see how the community is coming together. Our phones are buzzing with What’s App messages from group chats full of people wanting to help. One of the longer-term outcomes of the current crisis might be that community organisations find new ways of building partnerships together. That would be great for peace. Certainly, it’s something we would welcome and want to be part of at CHIPS. Taking a partnership approach is core to our principles of community organising and peacemaking!

In Ghana, we know that our current mix of projects works – both in terms of helping to alleviate poverty as a root cause of violence, and bringing people together to forge positive relationships across the divides. Much of our work is scalable. So, if the need grows as a result of Coronavirus (and of course if we can secure funding), we’d be able to expand and reach into new areas.

We hope and pray that this crisis will continue to bring out the best in people and that communities will pull together. We also know (as we used to say a lot in our work in Uganda) that God is good ALL the time. So we place our trust in him and, while we expect the year ahead to throw up new challenges to peace, it should also present new opportunities for Christian peacemakers. We stand ready to respond wherever God calls us.