If this crisis is not contained and comprehensively addressed quickly, it will lead to catastrophic social, economic, and political crises, and the scars could last for years. Image: Angelina Bambina/Shutterstock.com

The sound of silence fills long days under lockdown in my New York City apartment that feels more cramped by the hour. The occasional cry of sirens from ambulances breaks up the monotony. Silence and empty streets are strange occurrences in “the city that never sleeps,” but which has now become the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

There are now more than 68,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and we know that things will get much worse before they improve. Remember that New York, where medical care is accessible and of relatively high quality, is hardly prepared for this massive looming health crisis. Beyond America’s borders, the pandemic has become a bigger humanitarian and development crisis.

Coronavirus spans the planet

It concerns me deeply to think about countries with much less infrastructure and preparedness. A shutdown to contain the virus and “flatten the curve” looks far different in the global south than in uptown Manhattan. According to the World Health Organization, the coronavirus spans the entire planet, with a foothold in more than 200 countries and territories.

If this crisis is not contained and comprehensively addressed quickly, it will lead to catastrophic social, economic, and political crises, and the scars could last for years. Consider that many countries are on the brink of having the development gains of the last two decades reversed in a matter of weeks or months. Much of this impact will be felt in places already facing severe humanitarian crises because of conflict, disasters, and climate change. The global economy may take a hit of US$1 trillion during 2020, and those who already do not have social protection, just over half of the world’s population, will be in a much more dire situation.

We have to support countries to set up a comprehensive approach to face the challenges that go beyond the health sector to both limit the spread of COVID-19 and to mitigate the potentially devastating impact on vulnerable people and economies.

Prepare, respond and recover

Drawing from its vast experience in the field, the UN has coordinated a blueprint to mitigate the humanitarian impact of the coronavirus. The US$2 billion COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) that was launched this week focuses on three priorities: containing the spread of the pandemic; addressing the deterioration of human rights, social cohesion, and livelihoods; and protecting and assisting refugees, internally displaced people, migrants and host communities particularly vulnerable to the pandemic.

The role of UNDP will be particularly significant. We will provide crucial support to country health systems, livelihoods, community engagement and social cohesion, as well as address issues related to stigma and discrimination, and ensure the protection of fundamental human rights, justice, and security needs of vulnerable persons and communities. We will draw on our experience in response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and on our longstanding partnership with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to help the 51 countries covered by the HRP to protect, respond, and recover.

Beyond the HRP, however, our work has already started. In Madagascar, together with the World Bank, UNICEF, and the World Food Programme, we are helping to develop an innovative social protection initiative to support vulnerable groups whose livelihoods face an ever-greater risk.

In Lebanon, our Disaster Management Unit embedded in the Office of the Prime Minister is providing direct support to the government in managing and coordinating this crisis, thanks to a fully equipped “crisis centre” we helped set up back in 2015. A centre of this kind is critical in moments like this.

Or consider Africa, where we will not only help with the procurement of essential medical equipment, including personal protective equipment, ventilators, and testing kits but also develop strategies to repair the social contract between state and citizens and carry out more effective public messaging on the COVID-19 virus. A critical need at this phase in the crisis is to rebuild the frayed public trust in government institutions.

Acting quickly and boldly

Our presence in roughly 170 countries and territories allows us not only to act quickly and boldly but also to plan and possibly prevent other types of crises that can occur as a consequence of the pandemic. These include increased vulnerability of women and girls to violence, increased discrimination against migrants, refugees, and internally displaced people, mass protests, and a general degradation of law and order.

We are working around the clock to adapt, whenever possible, our existing programmes to respond to this crisis. The goal is to come up with new and innovative solutions that are comprehensive, equitable, and inclusive, so that no one is left behind. Countries across the world have made incredible progress toward achieving their Sustainable Development Goals since 2015 and we want this to continue in the next decade.

UNDP is determined to prevent COVID-19 from wiping out that progress as part of an integrated UN response. Let’s put in place governance antibodies to inoculate countries hardest hit by this pandemic. Let’s all act now together.

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