Preparing for the knock-on effects of COVID-19

March 20, 2020


From where I sit, I can almost see the border and the border crossing between France and Switzerland. For the first time in generations the barricade rests across the road, blocking access between the two countries. It’s just one obvious symbol and indicator of the massive and cascading impact of COVID-19. Illness and death are just the obvious health effects, but they are joined by children being, out of school, businesses closed, many people on the brink financially, transportation networks halted and travel restricted. And this in some of the most advanced economies of the world.

In some ways this should not be surprising. The way an epidemic works is much like a natural hazard. Its true impact is not just in what it does directly, such as a cyclone killing people and destroying crops, fishing boats, bridges and more. It is the knock-on effects on livelihoods and employment governance, transport, power systems, water supply, and the environment. The 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak was a precursor for COVID-19. With a fatality rate of 70 percent, the virus killed at least 11,000 people, and overwhelmed health systems. The knock-on costs were immense as well and went well beyond health. The disease killed teachers and kept parents and their children at home for months, government workers at times avoided work, many small and medium companies went out of business and others slashed employment rates. In Sierre Leone, the mining industry, at times as much as 90 percent of that country’s total exports, essentially came to a halt, The World Bank estimated the total financial cost of the outbreak to be at least US$2.8 billion.

Spread in Africa

It is this scenario that should concern us. The World Health Organization reported yesterday, for example, that the spread of COVID-19 in Africa went from five to thirty countries in less than a week. What would will happen next? Three key points appear very clearly, much of it already seen in West Africa during the height of the Ebola outbreak:

·         The virus exposes state vulnerability. When we have even the most advanced and rich societies closing down due to its impact, what happens to those that have weak healthcare systems with minimal emergency facilities and capacity? What happens when governance is weak? What happens when contingency planning and resources are inadequate? How can you provide employment when the bulk of society works in the informal sector? Can refugees still be supported when your own resources are so stretched?

·         The virus exposes personal and family vulnerability. How do you practice social distancing if you live in a one or two room dwelling in a slum? How do you wash hands without clean water? How do you protect yourself when you don’t have government information, or know how to obtain the basic services that may be available? What if there is little trust in the government in the first place? How do you work when your work depends utterly on face to face contact? And for those who have employment that can be home-based, how do you work when there is inadequate electricity, never mind internet.

·         COVID-19 compounds these existing vulnerabilities by adding one more shock to the system. We must consider the most fragile countries in particular, already affected by all manner of issues, whether they are underlying issues like having delicate ecosystems, high population growth, rapid urbanization, narrow economies, being landlocked, or already existing threats such as conflict, community insecurity, environmental degradation, droughts and cyclones. These conditions already exist and should COVID-19 spread as it has elsewhere in these places, we could see an impact that would in terms of society match or even outstrip that we now are seeing in Europe.

Prepare, respond and recover

For UNDP, this means helping developing countries prepare, respond and recover and doing so in a way that is not only about health, but is about the fabric of societies, and the resilience of countries and communities. If COVID-19 exposes vulnerabilities, then we must work to build resilience, beyond healthcare in businesses, government capacity, contingency planning, transport networks and much more. In our insurance and risk finance work for example, we’re looking to both short-term measures to protect the most vulnerable and long-term integrated solutions, where pandemic risk is actively managed, reduced and transferred, alongside and at the same time as other risks. This must be the reality of an increasingly complex world.

So, while it is true that COVID-19 respects few boundaries, of age, class or financial status, ethnic group or political stripe, it is the impact across borders that concerns us most. For even as communities in Europe and North America steel themselves for weeks, perhaps months, of unprecedented restrictions, it is to these most vulnerable states to which we must still turn our attention. Should they be affected the way some developed nations have, the impact could be devastating.