Is coronavirus a harbinger of peace?

Many commentators and political leaders have been using the language of war to describe “the battle against the coronavirus”, even drawing on analogies with World War 2 (1)(2). Others have pointed out how inappropriate this is, since there is no battlefront and no arms to protect us (3).

This debate hides another maybe more surprising reality. The pandemic is making warfare and war-mongering much more difficult to organise. While anti-war campaigners have long struggled to have much influence on limiting the activities of the military, the novel coronavirus now sweeping our world has been remarkably successful in bringing a halt to some of our giant war machines. As Robert Burns said, the best laid schemes of mice and men . . .

Covid-19 has alarmed the world’s armies and navies. Over the past two months it has shown that it loves nothing more than the cramped conditions of naval vessels and army barracks to wreak havoc. It thrives in these confined quarters, spreading from person to person at an incredible rate. It has demonstrated that it can immobilise entire units in days.

The virus’s first notable impact was when it ended the activity of the US aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt, forcing it back into harbour on 27th March. An outbreak of Covid-19 had earlier swept through the ship, infecting over 1,100 of its crew and making continued manoeuvres impossible (4). Fortunately, despite the scale of this outbreak, just one sailor died. Just two weeks later, the French aircraft carrier, Charles-de-Gaulle, was also forced back to port with more than a third of the sailors on board with confirmed Covid-19 (5). Since then, a dozen more ships from five navies have reported coronavirus cases on board (6). Clearly, it doesn’t matter which flag is on the mast, coronavirus is proving a menace to armed forces the world over.

It is not just the navy where the virus is putting a stop to military activities. Both the US and the British armies have had to suspend basic training for “the duration”. That’s good news for the youngsters from deprived backgrounds who make up the bulk of young recruits.

Covid’s restraint on the urge to war goes even further. During the third week of March, the Russian military ended its war games near to its western borders as it ramped up preventative measures to slow the spread of coronavirus. “It’s obvious that all of this is connected with preventive measures,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday. “It’s linked to the situation around the general fight against coronavirus” (7).

According to the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, the Russian drills had themselves been ordered in response to NATO plans for a military exercise billed as “the biggest deployment of U.S. based troops in Europe since the Cold War”. The NATO plans were also shelved due to coronavirus fears. So no NATO-Russian macho showoff. Coronavirus 2: Military 0.

Covid-19 is also having an impact in the Middle East. When it comes to infections in bulk, the Saudi royal family appears to have suffered immensely; reports suggest that at least 150 of its members have been infected (8).

This might well have been one cause of the current ceasefire in the Saudi’s five-year campaign in Yemen. On April 8th, Saudi officials and their allies announced a unilateral ceasefire, saying that they were seeking to jump-start peace talks to be brokered by the United Nations (9). The Saudis are said to have been motivated by fears of the coronavirus spreading in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world, where the healthcare system has been ravaged by years of blockade and conflict (10).

Following the ceasefire, at the end of April, Yemen recorded its first Covid-19 death. Since then, fighting on the Yemeni island of Socotra has come to a halt following an agreement reached on May 2nd between the Saudi-backed government forces and UAE-backed southern separatists. 

There have been plenty of false starts to peace in Yemen; is it too much to hope that peace could finally be breaking out in Yemen? The UN Special Envoy, Martin Griffiths, said that, “Yemen cannot face two fronts at the same time: a war and a pandemic. And the new battle that Yemen faces in confronting the virus will be all-consuming. We can do no less than stop this war and turn all our attention to this new threat.”(11) Finally, someone is using the language of war in relation to Covid-19 in a manner that almost makes sense.

Covid-19 is so terrifying that it seems to have started to put matters into perspective, not just in the evolving conflict between NATO and Russia but in Yemen too. With soldiers around the world being used to assist medics and provide logistics support in the face of this pandemic, could we finally be on the verge of discovering ways to put our energies to better use – tackling the issues that really matter, rather than playing power games?

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