What does Coronavirus mean for peace?

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Updated 19 April 2020

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 crisis in many countries, and its impact on peace and violence is difficult to predict. So, what are some of the issues that – as Christian peacemakers – we are looking out for?

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.

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.

Lockdown brings new risks 

Second, we need to be alert to the new risks that lockdown brings. The root causes of division will not magically disappear because people are staying at home or keeping themselves to themselves.

In the UK, fewer people on the streets in principle reduces the opportunity for violence and leads to a drop in knife crime. Indeed, West Midlands (one of Britain’s biggest police forces) reported year on year falls of 41% in serious violence and 39% in knife crime during March, while London’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner said at the beginning of April that “Knife crime has dropped considerably.”

But we still don’t 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. What’s more, increases in frustration, mistrust and suspicion may only manifest themselves later on.

Anecdotal evidence we are hearing around Brixton and reading in the newspapers also suggests that county lines drug gangs are capitalising on school closures and boredom to prey on young people and recruit them into criminal activity. The drugs trade has not gone away and, clearly, it is the vulnerable and those without strong family and community support who are most at risk.

As we mentioned a month ago, there is also a very real risk that the threat of violence moves inside, with a rise in domestic violence behind closed doors. Sadly this has proven true for China, Spain and France, three countries which entered lockdown ahead of the UK. They have all reported a surge of cases: in France’s case, authorities reported a 30% increase in the first week. There is now concern that the same could be happening in the UK, at a time when cuts have left a shortage of refuge spaces.

Poverty and inequality

Third, it’s clear that many households will feel a sharp economic shock as a result of this crisis. As usual, 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 authorities respond during the crisis will significantly shape the long-term impacts.

A lot to process

Fourth, whatever happens next, the coming months will continue to bring a great deal of anxiety. We still have a lot of processing to do and 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.

Looking to the positives

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

In Brixton, it’s been great to see how the community has pulled 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.

Further help on domestic violence

Domestic abuse impacts many people and most of us know someone affected, as their friend, family, neighbour, carer, colleague or key worker. Now is the time to be extra-vigilant and to check in with loved ones, but check first if it is safe for them to speak as the perpetrator may be able to overhear.

For 24/7 advice for yourself or someone else, no matter where you live, please contact the freephone National Domestic Abuse Helpline. Tel: 0808 2000 247. If you or someone else is in immediate danger always call police on 999.

If you’re in Lambeth the Gaia Centre can help. Confidential advice and support can be provided by phone, text or email – whatever’s safest. Tel: 020 7733 8724 / Email: lambethvawg@refuge.org.uk