Conflict and COVID-19- A War Storyteller’s Narrative of Violence and Silence during a Pandemic – by Ayesha Ahmad

Conflict and COVID-19

In the midst of governments around the globe issuing pandemic public health policies and guidelines to protect populations and address health justice for all community members to be prevented and protected from transmitting and becoming infected with COVID-19, there is also a quieter discourse seeping in, which is so eerie and sublime that the words only gather in the murkiest parts of society; the society that is continuously bleeding, physically and/or psychologically, from war and conflict. We may reach these wounded words in the silenced, yet not silent, spaces of the war storytellers.

On hearing the news of a lockdown in the United Kingdom, I received the following reflection from a refugee who is now a British citizen with his own business after residing in the country for over twenty years. Nevertheless, he uttered the following words:

“This government has so much power over us. They can come to our homes at night and kill us one by one.” 

The experience of a policy to protect was wholly perilous to an individual who had been persecuted in his country of birth, and the life that he was first introduced to in the world. His first experiences of authority were persecutory and situations that required resistance and to be fought against, even with the risk to losing life. And now, it seemed the case was true, in part, again. He felt that he had to contravene the pandemic policy – yet this time, he would be facing a potential life-threatening illness, not freedom, as the end of his perceived just cause.

In this narrative, I wish to make the point of the trauma legacies of war and conflict. The slogans that have been jumping out on us from the media warn of the number of deaths that will result. The harshness of the reduction of life to a statistic is juxtaposed with the equally harrowing tactic of the testimonies of grieving relatives.

When considering how to react to a pandemic outbreak in a country experiencing conflict, especially prolonged and chronic conflict, such fatalistic stories are embedded in the living consciousness of everyday lives, yet these deaths are buried from our global awareness.

The World Health Organisation categories conflict as a form of collective violence. Collective violence is the ‘instrumental use of violence by people who identify them- selves as members of a group against another group or set of individuals, in order to achieve political, economic or social objectives. It takes a variety of forms: armed conflicts within or between states; state-perpetrated violence such as genocide, repression and other abuses of human rights; terrorism; and organized violent crime.’

Within the above definition of collective, the collective trauma from conflict is buried. In June 2019. Charlson et al’s [1] report in the Lancet confirmed that the prevalence of psychiatric disorders stemming from conflict is significantly underestimated and called for an increased research capacity and implementation of mental health interventions during conflict-related humanitarian crises.

Evidencing the testimonies of war-storytellers remains an effort against silencing. The testimonies from war are marginalised in the very acts that symbolise space for suffering to be explored. Conceptualising the trauma narration of the war-storytellers using biomedical frameworks that individualise suffering as pathologies entirely negates the injustice that shattered their landscape.

In the time of COVID-19, we are observing the violence of a virus upon our homes, and surrounding environment. The same person whose war-story initiated this post also exclaimed:

“I wish this virus was a terrorist. Then we could attack it and tell it to stay out of our country.”

Personifying the unseen and voicing the unheard is another reflection on the way that marginalised and trauma narratives surface during other global ruptures.

During the growing solidarity towards the collective affected by a pandemic that connects lands, ethnicities, languages, religions and generations, there may also resonate a transformative opportunity for ensuring that silenced narratives are received. For war-storytellers to have an audience.

Generating an audience is the antidote for silent suffering that a vaccine is for a virus. The parallels are clear, yet the global and public health approach to conflict lacks the momentum and commitment to stating that war is the vessel for psychological trauma. To counteract and eliminate the contagion of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) the systematic fracturing of peace must be prevented. The prevention of COVID-19 responds to the conflicts of health systems that face overburdening and collapse.

For the war-storytellers though, as we face these unprecedented times, the exertion of power to protect feels the same as the power to persecute. Without detangling these stories and including both a new wave of prevention of conflict through public health discourses, which focus on the testimonies of war-storytellers, as well as intersecting mental health in pandemic health policy, we may find that the narrative that emerges from the post-pandemic repairing of the global world is weighted by the traumas of the conflicts the world forgot.



[1] Charlson, F., van Ommeren, M., Flaxman, A., Cornett, J., Whiteford, H. and Saxena, S., 2019. New WHO prevalence estimates of mental disorders in conflict settings: a systematic review and meta-analysis. The Lancet394(10194), pp.240-248.

Ayesha Ahmad



Dr. Ayesha Ahmad is Lecturer in Global Health at St. George’s University of London.




Image by Art Lasovsky on Unsplash.