Amid the economic disruptions and health risks of the coronavirus pandemic, Iraqis are struggling. Decades of conflict and war have eroded the country’s public health capacity. Almost a third of the population lives under the poverty line.

On top of this, the frequency of Islamic State attacks is rising. In fact, the militant group has attempted to take advantage of the vulnerabilities produced by the coronavirus pandemic, according to recent analysis of Islamic State official statements.

The situation in Iraq illustrates how the coronavirus threat and policy responses to the pandemic could lead to an increase in violent conflict. But elsewhere in the world, researchers who tally conflict-event counts see stagnant or even falling numbers. And in some countries, conflict trends don’t appear to be responding to covid-19 at all.

My research with Jeff Bloem documents considerable differences in the frequency of conflict events across several countries in recent months. Our findings suggest that the pandemic-conflict relationship seen in Iraq does not appear to exist in many other countries.

How we did our research

We used the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), a database that counts the number of conflict events daily around the world. For 2019 and 2020, ACLED includes more than 100 countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe — and tracks three categories of violent conflict: battles, violence against civilians and explosions/remote violence.

We examine trends in the number of conflict events over time. To see whether the trend changes in response to covid-19, we look at what happened after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic (March 11) or the country declared a lockdown.

The relationship between pandemics and conflict is theoretically unclear. In some countries, job losses from the covid-19 pandemic mean people have fewer income-generating options — that can make participation in violence seem a more viable alternative. But if market disruptions and reduced global demand are driving down the value of natural resources such as oil wells, then we may see less conflict over control of such resources.

We then conducted case studies based on our knowledge of countries with high rates of violent conflict before covid-19. These include countries with active civil wars (such as Syria) as well as countries with violent militia groups (such as the Philippines).

Conflict during the coronavirus pandemic varies greatly

Worldwide, we didn’t observe an increase in violent conflict. If anything, conflict has decreased, as the figure below shows. Violent conflict between March and August 2020 was 23 percent lower than violent conflict during the same period in 2019. Comparing these time periods, battles are down 20 percent and remote violence and bombings are down 40 percent. But violence against civilians — the deliberate attack of unarmed noncombatants by armed groups — continued at similar rates globally.

Do these results suggest that covid-19 is fueling reductions in conflict? Probably not — in Syria, for instance, other factors may explain the declines. On March 5, Turkey and Russia brokered a cease-fire agreement covering the Idlib province in Syria. Idlib is the final front of the Syrian government campaign, so this cease fire led to a dramatic decline in violent events nationwide.

But the Idlib cease fire wasn’t motivated by covid-19, and would have taken place anyway, pandemic or no pandemic. So even when violence is falling in the covid-19 era, we have to recognize that declines could be driven by events that happened to take place around the same time as the pandemic’s arrival.

The same could be true in cases where violent conflict increased — these upticks in violence could have little to do with covid-19. In the ongoing war between Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Libyan National Army (LNA), the number of violent events rose steadily in the first half of 2020.

The trend line does not change at all when Libya started to respond to covid-19 in March. Libya’s daily violent-incident counts began to fall in late spring, which corresponds with the GNA’s successful seizure of critical holdings from the LNA militia. These results suggest that the GNA and LNA continued their campaigns relatively undeterred by the pandemic. Conflict eventually declined — but this largely reflects the LNA’s retreat.

What about other countries? In places with active rebel groups and militias, such as the Philippines and Iraq, we find mixed results. Reports from both countries suggest that rebel groups and government officials (in the Philippines, but not Iraq) are increasing attacks to take advantage of the opportunities in the covid-19 climate. We see little if any change in the number of violent-conflict events per day in the Philippines. But we do see evidence of escalating conflict in Iraq (see figure), much of it attributed to a rise in Islamic State activity.

What happens in the Philippines is not an exception. While violent conflict rose in Nigeria for some time, trends are relatively unchanged in Somalia and Congo. These mixed outcomes suggest that there’s still much to learn about pandemics and conflict.

So what does this mean?

One reason it is hard to understand the relationship between covid-19 and conflict in our ACLED data is because of the “missing counterfactual” — what would have likely happened in a country in the absence of this year’s pandemic. For researchers, the next step involves pulling together the data needed to estimate this missing counterfactual, which will help give a better picture of how much covid-19 influenced country trends.

As some countries experience a surge in new coronavirus cases, additional data on incomes, prices, infection rates and other factors may help policymakers understand why the pandemic may be fueling more conflict in some countries, but not others.

Editor’s note: The figures have been updated to clarify the WHO declared a global pandemic on March 11.

Colette Salemi is a PhD student in applied economics at the University of Minnesota. Her research focuses on conflict, forced displacement, environmental degradation and their intersections. Follow her on Twitter @colette_salemi