Is there a “COVID-19 dividend”?

May 11, 2020


In a matter of months, more than four million people have been infected with the coronavirus COVID-19. Hundreds of thousands have died, health systems have been overwhelmed, economies decimated, and the social fabric of many countries stretched to breaking point. Without question, this is first and foremost a health crisis. Its cascading and potentially scarring effects on economies and societal systems can be mitigated if quickly and effectively dealt with. But it is also a crisis of opportunity. That is whether we will choose to progressively build back better to be resilient to future crises, or fundamentally alter the nature and trajectory of a nation’s development?  It’s a crisis because we have an immediate and far-reaching decision to make; do we fall back into an old and comfortable development paradigm of long, linear and familiar change or be more revolutionary?

COVID-19 is showing us that revolutionary change is possible. The response is arguably the most digitally enabled in history. We are seeing an outbreak of digital ways to support disease surveillance, provide information, enable teleworking, facilitate on-line collaboration and learning, make social safety net payments at immense scale, and even to manufacture medical equipment with 3D printing. Lockdowns have taken vehicles off the streets, allowed people to work from home, and at the same time care for families, and given people a glimpse of mountains and blue skies they haven’t been able to see because of smog. Some leaders are talking more enthusiastically about planetary health and social wellbeing as an equal, if not greater measure of national success, than GDP. COVID-19 is leading to unprecedented speed and global collaboration in vaccine and antibody development. Within the last 90 days, nearly 1,700 economic policy announcements on COVID-19 have been made by governments and institutions to lessen the worst impacts. The development process can now potentially be put on steroids to shift us from a slow to rapid change towards a dramatically different, equitable and sustainable world.

We must ride the wave of change and capitalize on the tsunami of innovation we are now experiencing. The technology is here, or rapidly being developed, and the sheer magnitude of the crisis is providing reflection across societies about the future. Financial resources are being made available in volumes that dwarf the response to the global financial crisis of 2007-08. 

Yet, while the possibilities and resources are there, choices must be made. This takes leadership and quality and accessible data. Perhaps like no time before we are seeing experimentation at scale and speed. But what works? What are the opportunity costs? What are the differentiated impacts across income groups, the marginalized, the vulnerable, and across different geographic areas? Where do you invest your financial resources—knowing that each dollar spent will have to be repaid by future generations—to obtain the highest returns measured by planetary health and social wellbeing as much as growth in GDP? In the Philippines, and likely in most developing countries, existing approaches for monitoring impact and efficacy are at best piecemeal and certainly not at the scale required to enable well-informed systematic change. It doesn’t have to be this way. There is an immense amount of administrative and high-frequency data available that can be used. There are also honed methods for scraping this data, and mature frameworks for structuring it in meaningful ways. We need to converge these frameworks, data streams, data standards, to make better sense and guide an effective response. UNDP will work with the Government of the Philippines and the private sector to make public and private sector data readily accessible and useable.

UNDP has immense convening power borne from a long history of impartial and inclusive action. UNDP can rapidly bring together governments, private industry, social media platforms, non-profits, our sister UN agencies, data scientists and research organizations to share data, access the required computing power, including artificial intelligence and machine learning, and align research and analysis. Its vast network of Accelerator Labs—where we aspire to be the largest and fastest learning network in the world—can provide the means to map and share rapidly evolving solutions, and help countries contextualize them and take them to scale. COVID, for all its deleterious effects, has provided the impetus to assemble real-time, global interaction and collaboration, that can be agile and responsive to the information and analytical needs of governments trying to chart a way forward.

In the Philippines we are about to launch the Pintig Lab (‘Heartbeat’ in Filipino), designed to measure the country’s socio-economic health in response to the government’s COVID-19 amelioration programme. Pintig is a collaborative endeavour between UNDP, the Department of Information and Communications Technology, the private sector, academia and think tanks. It will ingest, synthesize, visualize, and analyze, with the aid of Artificial Intelligence and predictive software, a wide array of high frequency data, administrative data, app based, on-line enabled, and household level surveys and translate these into real time policy and programme advice. Pintig will also provide a platform for managing future crises and development programmes. If there is indeed a “COVID-19 dividend” it is perhaps the spirit of collaboration and desire to change that we are seeing in the Philippines.