This pandemic has taught us a powerful lesson about what’s possible when we join forces. Elizabeth Cousens, president and CEO, UN Foundation, explains what COVID-19 and the Solidarity Response Fund teach us about 21st-century collective action
Forty years ago, governments and scientists came together at the United Nations to announce the successful eradication of smallpox, the first disease that humans have been able to wipe off the face of our planet. Today, we face a similar test in how we come together to respond to and recover from COVID-19. United Nations secretary-general António Guterres described the pandemic as the biggest threat the world has faced since the Second World War. The COVID-19 crisis shows exactly why the UN and agencies like the World Health Organization exist – and what it takes to make them work.
At the end of February, the WHO asked the UN Foundation to help rally support for its urgent efforts to respond to the fast-moving virus. We saw immediately that any successful effort would mean mobilising ideas, people and resources in a way not seen before – harking back to our origins when visionary philanthropist Ted Turner created the foundation to give the UN an agile and responsive partner to help it drive global progress and tackle pressing threats.
Two weeks later, we launched the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund, the first and only way for every individual or organisation to contribute to the global front of the COVID-19 fight. Individuals, companies, philanthropies and employees, all uniquely affected by the global pandemic, now have a way to be part of the solution and support the WHO’s critical work: tracking and understanding the spread of the virus, ensuring front-line health workers get vital protective equipment and patients get the right care, and accelerating global research and development into vital treatments and vaccines.
What solidarity looks like
Within six weeks, more than 350,000 people from over 100 countries and over 140 leading companies helped raise more than $200 million. From the woman in Ireland who did 8,000 squats to raise money for the fund, to companies creating matching challenges in the millions of dollars, to so many people donating whatever they could – sometimes just a single dollar – we see what solidarity looks like.
These early contributions had irreplaceable value. They helped the WHO make early first-bulk purchases of essential commodities. They seeded early work on global Solidarity Trials, where dozens of countries share real-time learning about potential therapeutics. They underwrote a first international serological study to improve diagnostics. They helped launch early Solidarity Flights to carry essential equipment to hard-hit areas and support the most vulnerable countries.
Our experience with the Solidarity Fund also highlighted a few critical ingredients of what it takes for international institutions to work in the modern era.
They need diverse constituencies to support and champion their work across every geography, every sector, every demographic. That is what powers our fund, and it is what will be needed to power sustained cooperation.
They need speed and agility to respond to fast-moving events and pivot in the face of turbulence. What has made this fund valuable is not just scale but speed and having ‘just in time’ resources to put to the greatest need.
They need clear roles and responsibilities to deliver unique value to countries, communities and citizens in a complex world. People support the fund because they understand that the WHO uniquely provides essential global public goods in the midst of a pandemic.
They need a holistic approach because issues connect – from our economies to our food systems to our health – and our solutions must too. Fund supporters understand the need to support the critical global public health measures that are essential to so many other things people care about in their lives and communities.
They also need stamina because problems like COVID-19 are not solved overnight.
Strengthening global bonds
Beyond the health emergency, COVID-19 will have sustained impacts on every dimension of our lives. Success in this longer game will require redoubled effort to strengthen bonds of international cooperation that have frayed to the breaking point. Today it is the pandemic, but the climate crisis looms, as do persistent and widening inequalities that foment distrust, insecurity and instability, which need urgent redress. Cooperation is not an extra. It is essential.
We are proud of those who have stepped up around the Solidarity Fund. In their demonstration of what people can achieve when they coalesce around common cause and common interests, we glimpse a more united future. We hope world leaders take from this a powerful lesson about the possible and recommit to join forces in tackling the global challenges that connect us all.