16 July 2020: In this article, local peacebuilding expert in Ukraine, Olga Dolinina reflects on the impact of COVID-19 for peacebuilders, along with the opportunities brought about by a pandemic.

This article forms part of the quarterly Peace Dispatch series – a collection of articles sharing recent insights and analysis on conflict and peacebuilding from a network of local peacebuilding experts around the world. Explore content from previous other editions here. 

The coronavirus pandemic is now affecting practically every country on the planet. In Ukraine, prompt action by the government gives hope that the outbreak will be more limited in scope than in other parts of Europe. However, Ukraine is also still coping with the lingering effects of six years of conflict in the east of the country, and the pandemic has accentuated those effects in many ways, including a lack of social cohesion among the affected population.  

In Ukraine, prompt action by the government gives hope that the outbreak will be more limited in scope than in other parts of Europe.

In turn, peacebuilders activities and plans have been impacted a lot by the quarantine measures, social distancing, remote work, limited transportation, and other restrictions. They face challenges on how to continue delivering support during the pandemic; how to increase their technical capacity; how to develop long-term strategies to decrease the impact of the virus, and also prevent the pandemic in the future; how to continue working for peace under the new circumstances 

Key peacebuilding initiatives and the response 

The pandemic has put an added strain on local peacebuilding initiatives, forcing peacebuilders to change their approach and adapt planned interventions to incorporate the COVID response. In addition, many peacebuilders are struggling to fundraise for their projects under the pandemic.  

The pandemic has put an added strain on local peacebuilding initiatives, forcing peacebuilders to change their approach and adapt planned interventions to incorporate the COVID response.

In response, the Initiative Center to Support Social Action "Ednannia" conducted an online assessment of some 300 local organisations to evaluate the challenges imposed by the pandemic. The results showed that the challenges to projects are pronounced as offline events and activities were cancelled or re-scheduled, or indeed adapted for an online environment. Respondents also stated that they lack the technical and digital skills to work online and/or facilitate big online events, in order to meaningfully engage with their audience online.

In many cases, they also lacked the hardware and software needed to conduct their work online. In addition to that, peacebuilders also reported experiencing increased stress and anxiety during the quarantine and needing mental health support to continue their peacebuilding work. 

Despite these challenges to their work, many peacebuilders are still managing to provide rapid response to COVID-19 and help communities to overcome the impact of the pandemic as well as sustain peace. They are doing this in various ways, for example: 

  • Working with local authorities to enhance their digital literacy around how to use online technologies and conduct online conferences. This is bringing together local authorities, community members, and the police to discuss ways to ensure safety and better responses to the challenges of COVID-19.  
  • Procuring and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfectants to doctors, medical workers, the police and emergency services, to make sure the virus does not spread. 
  • Providing emergency grants. For example, "Ednannia", funded by the United Nations Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme (UNRPP), provides grants for local peacebuilding projects to decrease and alleviate the impact of COVID-19 across conflict-affected communities as well as to increase security and social cohesion. The grants assist the most vulnerable groups of people such as the elderly, people with disabilitiesand vulnerable young people. Other projects also involve supporting social cohesion, collecting data on the needs and challenges of local communities to design programmesraising awareness on hygiene and safe practices, developing online platforms, supporting volunteer groups, conducting online consultation services for preventing and responding to cases of domestic and gender- based violence, and providing psychosocial support. 
  • Delivering support. Proliska, Caritas Ukraine and other local organisations deliver food, hygiene kits and medicines to vulnerable people who are at the high risk of COVID-19, including the elderly, and those living within five kilometres of the Line of Contact of the Government-Controlled areas, as they have become even more vulnerable during the pandemic. 
  • Providing online services nationally. Some local organisations, such as Proliska and the Right to Protection, continue providing free legal aid through online consultations for all people, including for conflict-affected people in the eastern Ukraine. 
  • Preventing and responding to cases of the domestic violence occurring during quarantine: Local organisations have been operating hotlines, and online consultations to provide psychosocial support and to improve the mental health of communities. Furthermore, children and families experience increased cases of domestic bullying and violence. Some organisations such as LaStrada, Volonter and EdEra, conduct online workshops for schoolteachers and youth on how to identify and respond to violence. They have created an online course on cyberbullying and media literacy to raise awareness about violence in social media and where to seek for support. 

Key developments from a local perspective 

Since the start of the pandemic, local peacebuilders have managed to reprogram their activities quite successfully to keep peace in their communities during quarantine and respond to the impact of COVID-19. However, in case the pandemic continues, or the second wave comes, there is still a risk that financial and human resources could be exhausted, and peacebuilders are too burned out to deliver support.  

It is important that peacebuilders continue their response to the virus while there is an armed conflict in the east of Ukraine to avoid catastrophic and far-reaching consequences. The virus might threaten the peace process and exacerbate tensions that contribute to conflict, including inequality, food insecurity, competition over resources and marginalisation. 

In case the pandemic continues, or the second wave comes, there is still a risk that financial and human resources could be exhausted, and peacebuilders are too burned out to deliver support.
  

Therefore, peacebuilders should continue their work towards resolving conflict and maintaining peace, as well as building the resilience of local communities and provide them with psychosocial support to promote social cohesion and reconciliation. Local organisations should keep existing peace processes on track while capitalising on opportunities brought about by the quarantine for dialogue, confidence building and peace initiatives to advance peace in the east of Ukraine. 

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