Potential risks and conflict sensitivity for researchers during COVID-19

The global health crisis interacts with existing economic, social, political, cultural, and ecological challenges and will unintentionally increase the risk of conflicts and the potential for violence in the Mekong region. Hence, it is crucial for researchers to be aware of possible health risks and understand different sources of conflict due to COVID-19 and other interconnected mechanism. This article aims to identify five potential risks of conflict emerging from COVID-19 and its complex, dynamic, and multidimensional challenges that researchers might unintentionally get caught up in and contribute to. It also aims provides four conflict sensitivity implications for researchers to avoid negative impacts and maximize the positive impacts of our research during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sudarat Tuntivivat By Sudarat Tuntivivat - Feb 23, 2021

Potential Risks of Conflict

  1. Damaging trust and relationships

COVID-19 can undermine trust and relationship between and among people and groups. Social isolation can lead to conflict due to lack of trust and communicate breakdown. Misleading and denying access to accurate information can spread rumors and misinformation. Loss of trust and relationship can increase deviant behavior, misconduct, and corruption in organizations and society at large.

  1. Discrimination and communal tension                                                                  

COVID-19 is spreading widely to poor people and ethnic groups who live in overcrowded conditions with limited access to adequate hygiene and sanitation. Furthermore, the health response and government measures will disproportionately allocate to different groups of people in society. Discrimination against poor people and certain ethnic groups can intensify communal tensions. Moreover, many groups and institutions are now competing over limited resources which can be a strong driver of tension and conflict.

  1. Violence against women and vulnerable groups

COVID-19 has caused deterioration of financial and social conditions which creates tension in households. Women and children are now being exposed to mental health risks, domestic violence, and food insecurity. Moreover, social isolation can create anxiety while undermining women and vulnerable groups’ ability to gain support from schools and communities. In addition, public support might be redirected to COVID-19 patients and weaken support availability for women and vulnerable groups.

  1. Misinformation and disinformation

COVID-19 has been a super-spreader episode of fake news and conspiracy theories from a wide range of sources: in person, broadcast radio and TV, mainstream and alternative media, and online from social media. Misinformation is usually spread by ill-informed individuals such as confusion over lockdown rules. While disinformation is false information aimed at interrupting public order such as conspiracy theories that the coronavirus is spread by wearing masks. Both misinformation and disinformation can lead to potential conflict and violence in the region.

  1. Civic unrest against government measures

COVID-19 has led to strict public health measures which have a severe negative impact on the economy and social spheres.  The lack of income and food insecurity create hardship, suffering, and frustration. The public has a loss of confidence in government and public institutions which is leading to increased civic unrest in the region.

Conflict Sensitivity Implications

  1. Context Implications

The global pandemic has shocked every country around the world, but its impacts and measures are totally different and highly dependent on the context. Therefore, it is crucial for researchers to regularly conduct a context analysis that consider the implications of COVID-19 on social, economic, political, cultural, and ecological interactions, and how these factors affect conflict and violence.

  1. Behavioral Implications

The researchers should respect and take an into account public health measures that are culturally appropriate for the local context.  Participants should be recruited and selected in way that minimizes risk, maximizes social benefits, and does not jeopardize the reliability and validity of the scientific research. If the research context is in a high-risk area, virtual research design and data collection should be utilized to protect researchers, boundary partners, and research participants. Any modifications in research design should notify with clear communications and truthful information to all concerned stakeholders. All researchers should always ensure their commitments to research ethics, gender equality and human rights.

  1. Program Implications

Boundary partners are key people who can build trust in and provide support to the research project during pandemic. It is important for the researchers to expand its program and network on existing capacities to foster multi-stakeholder engagement which is essential to prevent misinformation and disinformation that often drives confusion, frustration, and conflict. Providing equitable resources and service to all partners will help researchers reduce competition and helps maintain the healthy relationship which is key to avoid conflict during COVID-19 pandemic.

  1. Alternative Implications

The appropriateness of the research design should be modified to fit the context in which the research is to be conducted. This means that research should not be conducted if there are potential risks of violence or pandemic breakout that could harm researchers, boundary partners, and research participants. Hence, it is important for researchers to prepare to work online and modify their research designs, data collection, data analysis to fit with the dynamic context while maintaining effective communication with research team and all stakeholders.

In conclusion, there are potential risks of conflict emerging from COVID-19 that the research might unintentionally contribute to or get caught up in. Conflict sensitivity is a simple tool for researchers to reflect and implement to avoid negative impacts and maximize positive impacts of the research in Mekong region.


Marshall, Wallace. (2014). From Principle to Practice: A User’s Guide to Do No Harm. CDA Collaborative Learning Projects. Retrieved from http://www.principletopractice.org/docs/FromPrincipletoPracticeBook.pdf

Saferworld. (2020). Conflict sensitivity in responses to COVID-19: Initial guidance and reflections. Retrieved from https://www.saferworld.org.uk/resources/publications/1254-conflict-sensitivity-in-responses-to-covid-19-initial-guidance-and-reflections

World Food Program (2020). COVID-19 and Conflict Sensitivity. Retrieved from https://www.wfp.org/publications/covid-19-and-conflict-sensitivity   

Sustainable Mekong Research Network

Building research for policy towards sustainable development in the Mekong Region

Read more about SUMERNET

Sign up for our newsletter