In the wake of COVID-19, countries must avoid self-interest and lurching from one crisis to the next, and instead take action that is proactive, visionary and a benefit to all
Every so often, a generation faces a reckoning, often because of a calamity that shakes the very foundations of our societies. This generation is already facing the climate crisis. Now it also faces the COVID-19 pandemic, which has wreaked devastation across the world. No country is immune. Tens of millions of cases have been confirmed worldwide; hundreds of thousands have died. The real tallies are surely higher once indirect effects – from disruption in health services to lost livelihoods – are accounted for. We know little about the longer-term health implications of the disease.
The pandemic is also a humanitarian and development crisis. The World Bank projects the deepest global recession in decades, with severe, long-lasting effects. Developing countries could see income losses that exceed $220 billion. COVID-19 threatens to push 27 million people in Africa into extreme poverty. Food shortages loom. Gender-based violence has spiked. Global human development – combining education, health and living standards – could decline for the first time since the United Nations Development Programme began measuring it 30 years ago.
One way to respond is reactionary, with countries succumbing to self-interests seeking little more than a return to the pre-COVID status quo. The other is proactive and visionary – seizing the opportunities that emerge in even the most formidable crises. This is the path we must take, informed by other major pandemics, such as AIDS. We must defeat not just the disease but also the conditions that allow it to flourish and that impede access to potential therapeutics and vaccines. And any COVID-19 vaccine must be considered a global public good – a “people’s vaccine”, in the words of United Nations secretary-general António Guterres.
Inequalities of epidemics
Epidemics are about more than pathogens; they are about inequalities and the socio-ecological systems in which pathogens take root. Zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 regularly threaten people, typically the poor and vulnerable, who may live in degraded natural habitats where pathogens move easily between wildlife, livestock and people. Even if we defeat COVID-19 but do nothing about its source – that is, how humans interact with nature – it is only a matter of time before the next novel pathogen emerges, as we have seen with HIV, severe acute respiratory syndrome, Middle East respiratory syndrome, H1N1 and other zoonoses.
COVID-19 exposes health disparities in all countries. Poor, racial and ethnic minorities or otherwise vulnerable groups face multiple risks because of the jobs they perform, the confined spaces they live in or the health services they cannot reach. They are also indirectly vulnerable to pre-existing conditions, such as non-communicable diseases, that make COVID-19 deadlier. Universal health coverage is important, but will not eliminate health disparities: countries should also address the long-term social, economic, commercial and environmental choices that disadvantage some over others, creating social fault lines exploited by epidemics and
UNDP has documented how digital disparities shape people’s experience of the pandemic, from obtaining health information and coping with isolation to being able to work, engage in online schooling or consult with doctors.
Trust and solidarity are necessary to defeat COVID-19. However, they face massive structural headwinds due to growing inequalities in human development – the central theme of UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report. Combating COVID-19, like climate change, requires addressing a broad, deep set of social, economic and environmental choices – in other words, development at large.
We already have the Sustainable Development Goals, which bind together the social, economic and environmental dimensions, and a pledge to leave no one behind. What we need is a renewed global compact for the SDGs that amplifies the COVID-19 responses. It must rest on three interconnected pillars.
1. Sustaining solidarity through universalism
We need to capitalise on the solidarity generated by COVID-19. A renewed universalism will go far in reducing inequalities that tear at the social fabric and impair our ability to marshal collective responses. There is no better moment to advance universal health coverage than following a crisis. We need to strengthen and integrate social safety nets. Indeed, UNDP has also outlined how the introduction of a temporary basic income for the world’s poorest could slow COVID-19 cases by enabling nearly three billion people to stay home.
2. Reimagining the global social contract
We cannot knit the world together with the internet, air transport, trade and investment on the one hand, while on the other, address climate change, pandemics, financial risks and inequality by retreating within the porous walls of the nation-state. Global health challenges like COVID-19 that do not respect borders demonstrate the critical need for a strong, well-resourced World Health Organization. Indeed, the UN secretary-general has called the pandemic “the most challenging crisis we have faced since the Second World War” – out of which the current multilateral system, with the UN as its cornerstone, was born. The solidarity emerging today can reinvigorate that multilateralism so instrumental in achieving results once perceived impossible – from eradicating smallpox to closing a giant hole in the ozone layer. COVID-19 and climate change need a decisive global response.
3. Rebuilding better
Our approach to ravaged healthcare systems and economies must go from repair to resilience. This applies to addressing climate change and disasters as much as to COVID-19 and future outbreaks. All countries need to develop capacities in compound risk management. As economies come back online, following a mass, if unequal, experiment in telecommuting and telehealth – we should rethink our environmental footprint and expand digital access, including regarding digital finance. Record low oil and gas prices are opportunities to raise carbon taxes, and new taxes on health-harming products can help finance COVID-19 responses and reduce NCD burdens, paying a double dividend.
The UN system is marshalling its collective resources in a coordinated response. UNDP has supported UN teams in approximately 100 countries to assess the social and economic impacts of COVID-19 and take urgent measures to minimise long-term impacts, particularly for vulnerable and marginalised groups.
Through their COVID-19 response and recovery plans, countries are making important development choices that extend well beyond the current crisis. The UN’s engagement will be critical to ensure that the recovery accelerates progress towards the SDGs.
UNDP will work with its colleagues to help scale up integrated solutions in governance, social protection, the green economy and digital disruption. The overarching ambition is to reduce inequalities, build trust in institutions, strengthen service delivery and put societies on a more sustainable footing. Connecting the development dots with a long-term view is one of UNDP’s many strengths. This know-how is more necessary now than ever.
We will fail if we restrict our vision to the health sector alone, if we aspire only to return to ‘normal’, where we lurch from one crisis to the next, if we retreat behind borders that are as invisible to pathogens as pathogens are to us. It was inevitable that humanity would have to reckon with a development model that is simply unsustainable for people and planet. That moment, during this collective sudden time-out, when much of humanity is galvanised around a singular threat, should be now.
The choice is ours.