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COVID-19 is altering our lives and the world as we know it. Responsible for more than one million deaths worldwide to date, the pandemic is putting unprecedented pressure on governments to maintain effective health and social services, and keep their economies functioning even as the virus disrupts day-to-day life on every level. 

Lockdowns have led to the closing of businesses and large-scale unemployment. As the waves of the pandemic continue to roll around the world, more and more people are unable to provide for basic needs. The resulting rising levels of poverty add a new dimension to the deepening health crisis.

The pandemic has resulted in security forces being called upon to carry out tasks not normally within their responsibilities. This has, in turn, revealed critical vulnerabilities in security institutions and their ability to meet the challenge, as well as the ability of governments to maintain national security and public order. The scale of the COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that it is not enough to address such outbreaks as only health crisis, but as security crisis as well. 

It is a complex task to respond effectively to the security needs of the entire population in a health crisis. It demands cooperation between government departments and organizations that would not normally need to work together, and a clear demarcation of roles between health personnel and professionals from other sectors. 

During the COVID-19 crisis, we have observed many cases of security forces responding in a measured and well-organized way to the challenges raised by the virus. Notably, in the Asia-Pacific region, where security forces are called out to respond to natural disasters and have learned important lessons on how to adapt their methods based on SARS outbreaks in recent years. 

In countries in conflict, however, public health infrastructures are not able to manage major outbreaks, and the resulting civil disorder can put security forces to the test. Warring parties and trapped civilian populations are all potentially exposed to the virus. Only a ceasefire would allow protective measures and treatment for the infected. Negotiating the cessation of hostilities and offering medical assistance could be the opportunity to develop trust between the warring parties, the local population, state security institutions, and political authorities. It is where the COVID-19 pandemic might generate positive outcomes that could help counterbalance the damage the virus has inflicted all over the world.

Our partner states around the world are facing difficult decisions as they balance their duty to protect human rights with the need to enforce lockdowns and other protective measures. We support them to respond to urgent needs, emerging challenges, and opportunities for positive change with the following actions: 

  • Gather emerging global best practices for police operations during COVID-19;
  • Help internal inspection units to define their approach to oversee operations;
  • Highlight and analyse the gender dimensions of COVID-19; 
  • Publish analysis and recommendations for donors regarding states of emergency and disaster risk reduction;
  • Engage with local civil society groups to promote key messages on human rights compliant security practices in the case of COVID-19;
  • Facilitate the sharing of experiences within and across regions.

For an in-depth analysis, read COVID-19: CRISIS & CATALYST FOR SECURITY & JUSTICE REFORM
For an understanding of the larger considerations around health and security and the role of security actors in preventing and responding to epidemics and pandemics, read The Security Sector and Health Crisis, part of our flagship SSR Backgrounder series.