What can we learn from COVID-19? A parallel between public health and atrocity prevention

5 May 2020 11:46

“GAAMAC has been regularly suggesting that the global atrocity prevention community can learn a lot from prevention realised through public health – now that we are going through this pandemic we would like to take the opportunity to systematize a comparative reflection” – Mô Bleeker

COVID-19 has changed life as we knew it. The pandemic has already led to increased social, economic and political tensions and could divert attention away from peace politics and atrocity prevention. In a new series of conversations, Mô Bleeker, GAAMAC chair and  Special Envoy for Dealing with the Past and Prevention of Atrocities at the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, and Dr Jennifer Leaning, Harvard Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, discuss what we can learn from COVID-19 and which parallels can be drawn between the concept of prevention in public health and the prevention of mass atrocities.

“The mechanisms of acknowledging and enforcing prevention in mass atrocities are not so routine or so well understood as they are in public health. It is crucial for GAAMAC and the international community to be able to identify an alert and intervene early to prevent atrocities” - Dr Jennifer Leaning

The fact that atrocity prevention lacks the kinds of robust national architectures that are already in place for public health crises, is one of the most striking differences between these two fields, says Dr Leaning. In the current pandemic it has proven to be difficult for public health authorities and the scientific community to undertake the early preventive measures needed to stop the outbreak and spread of the unknown virus. Dr Leaning observes that “there was an initial failure to understand how contagious the virus was and therefore strategies for how to react had to be developed and instituted in a very short time frame”.  As a result, some countries, began their public health interventions at a “late secondary prevention stage”.

“We need an atrocity prevention architecture which is well established if we want to act timely – otherwise we can only act when the pandemic, the pandemic of hate speech and incitement against a specific group for instance, is already there” – Mô Bleeker

The vast majority of nation states possess strong and robust public health monitoring systems. Under public health emergency law and in order to contain the pandemic, most governments expanded COVID-19 testing, infection rates are being monitored meticulously and strict social distancing measures are imposed on citizens. While Dr Leaning grants that strong provisions exist in international law regarding the ascertainment of mass atrocity crimes and the prosecution of its perpetrators, she cautions that national mechanisms to prevent these crimes need to be strengthened – this is one of GAAMAC’s core missions.

Asked for recommendations to the atrocity prevention community, Dr Leaning replies that there are two fundamental approaches to public health that can be applied to the prevention of atrocity; the early intervention method and the method of epidemiology. The latter analyses the distribution and determinants of health and disease conditions. Equally important is the open dialogue between scientists, political leaders and the population, which is also a necessity in atrocity prevention.

Dr Leaning identifies an additional criterion for the successful prevention of mass atrocity crimes – a common language across cultures. Societies across the globe need to recognise that certain risk conditions can be found in all communities and that it is necessary to reach a common understanding as to which key issues need to be monitored. “The more we could have a dialogue across societies and cultures, the more likely it is that we’re going to have states conform to international law and intervene, to make conditions of life better for all of those who are at risk”, she concludes.

Watch the full interview here. Please send your comments and questions to or contact us on Twitter and LinkedIn.