Tackling Vulnerabilities for Resilience against Future Pandemics

April 25, 2022

This is our wake-up call to strengthen resilience to current and future pandemics. - Denise E Antonio, UNDP Resident Representative

·       Lessons learned and directions for Future Preparedness

Published in The Sunday Gleaner 24 April, 2022

By UNDP Resident Representative Denise E Antonio

Scientists tell us pandemics and epidemics may be an inescapable feature of life as we know it, unless we address man’s unsustainable interaction with wild animal slaughterhouses. The resulting rise in Zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 – the kind transmitted from animals to humans – was not only inevitable in these conditions, but a setup for serious setbacks in human development.

Yet, despite repeated warnings, which heralded the advent of COVID-19, action towards risk-informed resilience building is woefully inadequate.

The 2021 Global Health Security Index concluded that despite some progress and nearly two years into the pandemic, all countries remain “dangerously unprepared” for the next major outbreak.

This is our wake-up call to strengthen resilience to current and future pandemics.

We must seek to systematically understand the nature, manifestation, and impact of our vulnerabilities as it to relates to pandemics like COVID-19.

Reducing known vulnerabilities is a key ingredient in any agenda for improving human development, advises Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Laureate in Economics. He further states that if we are to succeed, we need to approach vulnerabilities from a broad systemic perspective.

This is why the Multidimensional Vulnerability Index (MVI) – an important ingredient in dismantling barriers to resilience – was the tool of choice in a global COVID-impact study of 126 countries conducted by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The findings indicate that except for five Small Island Developing States (SIDS), the remaining SIDS were far more vulnerable than their income level would suggest. More importantly, the findings strengthen the call of international advocates for concessional financing for middle and high-income countries based on their vulnerabilities and not their income classification.  

Vulnerabilities revealed through a recent MVI study – Socio-Economic Impact Assessment of COVID 19 and Policy Options for Jamaica – highlight lessons learned that can also inform Jamaica’s approach to reducing vulnerabilities. I shared specific findings in a recent Year in review Op Ed. Today I share key takeaways and recommendations as we contemplate the way forward.

First and foremost, we learn that: High levels of vaccine hesitancy indicate formidable barriers of perception that can derail future disaster risk management strategies; mental health services are not sufficiently accessible to deal with the explosion of pandemic related mental health challenges (57%) reported by respondents; inequities in research and development capacities in vaccine innovation development in the region will continue to impact vaccine supply; the significant levels of learning loss expose the digital divide especially inequalities in access; the most vulnerable groups are those with disabilities, women, middle income earners (surprisingly) and those outside the social safety  net.

There were other valuable lessons that challenged our notions of who are really vulnerable: The number of persons who say they are not on the main social safety net programme (58%) is almost twice as high as those who say they are unemployed or lacking in income; The most vulnerable parishes overall, are rural (St. Mary, St Ann, Manchester) but, persons in urban areas are more vulnerable than those in rural areas; Women are slightly more vulnerable than men, but more so in urban areas; individuals with the lowest household monthly income do not have the highest level of vulnerability.

These vulnerabilities, exposed by the MVI, must be addressed with the broad systemic approach championed by Stiglitz, or they will remain as barriers to resilience.

First step in this systemic approach is tackling the roots of the crisis – unsustainable and unhealthy practices which give rise to zoonotic diseases. Going to the root also means deployment of adequate budgets for climate change adaptation and the environment including eco system restoration to disrupt the progress of zoonotic diseases. Yet we sense a lack of urgency in concrete action or advocacy to address this critical foundational challenge. SIDS must rise up united on this issue.

We must become more adept at identifying and addressing vulnerability – consistently – as an established practice. This does not nullify the strong tradition of evidence-based policy development at the national and regional levels. We simply recommend another layer of interrogation focused on uncovering vulnerabilities, as MVI data helps strengthen targeted approaches to risk reduction.

It will also be important to secure behavioral insights into the barriers to vaccine uptake to inform behavioral and social change campaigns. Otherwise, low vaccination rates will hinder national progress towards a resilient society.  

Once we start to generate a wealth of vulnerability data, we propose the development of a Data Hub and Policy Lab platform to house these findings and to facilitate monitoring and evaluation of programmes being implemented to reduce vulnerability. This should provide the evidence for a risk-informed integration of resilience into all levels of governance and operations.

We must then move to ensure that transactions of all kinds can be quickly migrated into the digital space without disruption, should the pandemic persist in intensity, or other variations arise. This means fast-tracking the digital society to ensure continuity in commerce, education, and developmental opportunities during a crisis. UNDP is honoured to support Jamaica’s progressive journey in this regard by partnering on a Digital Readiness Survey, a diagnostic survey exercise designed to secure rapid, high-level insights into a country’s digital strengths and weaknesses.

The digital space must be inclusive. We must therefore enhance and redesign platforms to accommodate persons with different types of impairments and abilities. This should be part and parcel of a concerted effort to increase targeting of those most likely to be left behind.   

The MVI exercise also reaffirmed the need to strengthen the social safety net and was able to identify locations and population groups most marginalized from this service. The data also indicated that the social safety net should include mental health support services. These services must be accessible, user friendly and normalized to remove associated stigmas.

A major component of the preparatory work for a pandemic-resilient society is in coordinating multilateral diplomacy and advocacy. We must aim to ensure that vaccine supplies quickly get into the hands of developing countries. Now is also the time to boost national and regional research and development capacities so vaccines can one day be produced and manufactured in the region for local consumption and export.  

Though much has been said and done about economic resilience, we must ensure the vulnerable Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) sector – the backbone of commerce, services and jobs – is not left out of resilience measures. Their vulnerability translates into a vulnerability for the economy. For this reason, this sector must be strengthened to withstand shocks. We recommend improving mechanisms for data collection on MSMEs; improving sector development and coordination; and promoting greater adoption of digital means for transacting business. In so doing there will be an added layer of protection to national economies in the event of crisis.

Vulnerability matters! Understanding the complex and nuanced ways it manifests in your communities, sectors and population groups is a foundation on which nations can fortify against pandemics.

The best time to start the process was yesterday. The next best time is now.  

Mandeep Dhaliwal, Director of the HIV and Health Group, UNDP, underpins the eternally optimistic approach we must adopt if we are to build a resilient future. “The pandemic can be a pivotal moment in history. One that propels us out of a state in which we were not prepared, sleepwalking toward the next pandemic, and turning a blind eye to widening inequalities, towards a world prepared for the next pandemic.

Denise E Antonio is UNDP Resident Representative to Jamaica, Belize, Bermuda, Cayman Islands, The Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands. Follow her at @Antonio67Denise