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  • Blog
  • 27 March 2020

What actions are required to mitigate the impacts of coronavirus on the poorest and most vulnerable people?

We highlight three key areas of action needed to provide an effective global response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Written by Harpinder Collacott

Chief Executive Officer

No country can do this alone and an effective global response requires three fundamental areas of action.

The impact of the coronavirus pandemic is turning lives upside down across the world. In the midst of this, it is easy to forget about the poorest and least resilient people who will be hit hardest by this crisis − people who live below the poverty line, have limited access to healthcare and social safety nets, work in the informal sector, refugees and displaced populations. The worst is yet to come. As the virus spreads to poorer and more vulnerable populations ill-equipped to cope, whose governments may be unable to offer bailouts for workers and companies, inadequate water and sanitation systems mean that the disease will spread quickly − especially in urban slums − and under-resourced health systems will not be able to cope with the spike in demand. Borders are closing and countries are going into lockdown, but it’s clear that the world must work together to mitigate the impact of this crisis, both in the short and the longer term.

1. We need a new financing system that brings together all countries to enable a universal response to crisis and its effects based on global public investment

It is increasingly clear that the financial impact of this crisis will be significant and long-lasting. The pandemic has slowed growth in all major economies, ambitions to end poverty by 2030 are under threat and never have we been so starkly reminded of the need to fight global challenges together. Current events have increased the urgency of designing new financial systems which will move us away from an outdated aid mindset and towards building new global, publicly-funded mechanisms which will be much more responsive to everyone’s needs.

First, we need to mobilise emergency financing to support the poorest countries in responding to the immediate crisis. Second, we need to ensure that official development assistance is maintained and gets to the countries and people that need it the most. Third, we need to agree new mechanisms to mitigate the longer-term economic impact of this crisis governed by a global financial architecture that is fit for the future.

Countries urgently need to join forces to provide a global backstop that limits the long-term damage that this pandemic will cause. At a micro-level, crisis can bring out the worst in people as they look to self-preservation, yet it can also bring out the best in us as people rally round to help those in their communities who need support. At the macro-level this is our chance to reverse the isolationist trends we have been seeing over the last few years and champion collective action to build a safe and secure world for all. DI's blog series on GPI – featuring articles by Gail Hurley, Jonathan Glennie and myself − examines what the coronavirus pandemic teaches us about the need for a global response to crisis, and the role that international public financing can play.

2. A joined-up response among humanitarian, development and peace actors is imperative for responding effectively to this crisis and protecting those who are most vulnerable

Our own research on countries experiencing protracted crises has shown that after three consecutive years of crisis, the number of people in extreme poverty will be 10% higher than if no crisis had occurred. Those already afflicted by conflict or environmental crises will be among the least resilient, and the coronavirus pandemic will potentially prolong and deepen existing crises. Millions of people may require immediate life-saving interventions, swelling the numbers of vulnerable people and stretching already limited resources. Yet, I am hearing from colleagues that international humanitarian non-governmental organisations, who are normally among the first responders, are already seeing a drop in public donations – as they are at home. Travel bans and quarantine regulations will also affect the deployment of international staff.

Without connecting humanitarian, development and peace approaches, the impact of the unfolding crisis will be worse, we will see hard-won development gains reversed and people falling back into poverty. While humanitarian actors step up to tackle the immediate crisis, they shouldn’t be left to handle the entire response − development actors must continue to support livelihoods and service delivery and work closely with humanitarians based on the comparative advantages their mandates offer.

3. To protect those most at risk, we need to know who and where they are – we cannot reach people who remain invisible, not counted by national civil registration and vital statistics systems

Data on people has never been so important. The most vulnerable people are the least likely to be counted and could miss out on the support they need. The impact of this crisis on their lives will be invisible, their deaths may go uncounted. This is not acceptable and will hamper management of the pandemic. The scale of this problem is vast. Around the world, one billion people cannot prove their legal identity. A quarter of children under the age of five (and half of children aged under five in the poorest 20% of households) have no form of birth registration. In many cases the deaths of the poorest people are not registered or, where they are, cause of death is often not recorded at all. Coronavirus could become a silent killer − hundreds of thousands of the poorest people could die without the world being able to account for their deaths.

Accurate and timely monitoring of all deaths is critical to understand the spread and the impact of the pandemic and to direct vital services to those most in need. A well-functioning civil registration system, which records every birth and every death, means that everyone is counted and policymakers can see the ‘universe of need’. Relying on statistics drawn from household surveys alone will not equip governments to respond effectively and nor will we ever really know the global impact the of current crisis. We will be feeling the effects of inadequate data systems in the response to this crisis for years to come if we do not step up our game now.

The coming months will be difficult for everyone, but they will be hardest of all for those least able to cope. There are some fundamental areas of action that we need to see progress on if we are to ensure the impact of this crisis is effectively responded to. Global cooperation is what will get us through this and future global crises.

Follow us on Twitter to find out how DI’s research, analysis and intellectual leadership is helping to equip those responding to the challenges of coronavirus. You can read recent publications from DI covering development finance, humanitarian crisis and data use.