To end a global pandemic, we need global solutions: In my view

By Gayle Smith, President and CEO, ONE Campaign

The COVID-19 crisis has put development co-operation to the test. This blog is one of the contributions by leading experts and policymakers to the OECD Development Co-operation Report 2020: Learning from Crises, Building Resilience, which draws early lessons and explores how to build systems that protect people better from global risks .

The year 2020 wasn’t supposed to be like this

Predicted by many but prepared for by few, the global pandemic that is still ravaging the planet has upended public health and killed over 1 million people. But its aftershocks are at least as daunting: stunning losses to the global economy, the disruption of worldwide commerce, growing food insecurity, education interrupted, massive job losses, and a global spike in domestic violence.

The pandemic has also laid bare the stark inequalities that still, in 2020, dictate who lives and who dies, who thrives and who suffers, which countries and communities rebound from these multiple shocks and which countries will collapse under their weight. And with the World Bank already reporting that the pandemic will push an additional 88-115 million into extreme poverty in 2020 alone, it is increasingly clear that the pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on the world’s most vulnerable people. If nothing else, it has revealed that poverty and inequality are inextricably linked and fuelled a desire for fundamental fairness and growing anger that such fairness remains elusive.

That the pandemic hit at a time of unprecedented global disunity has only increased the potency of the virus. At the time of writing, the world’s leaders have yet to come together to forge a common plan to defeat a transnational threat that is beyond the control of any individual country or region. Citizens are, in the main, doing their part – following the measures prescribed by experts and officials, wearing masks, working from home, social distancing, and providing the healthcare so urgently needed by so many. Theirs is a reasonable demand: leaders need to lead.

We know what’s needed and what it takes

The tragic irony of this moment, and perhaps our way out, is that we know what must be done, at least to control and ultimately end the pandemic and blunt the economic and social destruction it is unleashing. This is a virus – and that means that our tools are science, data and facts. We can plan and implement on the basis of knowledge rather than instinct; we can measure success and failure and adapt; we can outsmart the virus by leaving it little and then no room in which to spread.

First, a properly financed global strategy. We must and can plan and finance a global strategy for the production and global deployment of vaccines and therapeutics. The truth is that the pandemic doesn’t end when we find the vaccines and therapeutics. It ends when everyone gets them. This is the right thing to do, but it’s also the smart thing to do if we want to end the pandemic as quickly as possible. The epidemiology tells us that there is a systematic way to proceed if we want to not just make these available where they are affordable, but to shorten the lifespan of the pandemic. A coalition of the willing is already moving in this direction under the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator and COVAX, an advanced market commitment mechanism. But we need all countries to be on board and the financing to ensure that low-income countries are covered if we want to deny the virus its theatre of operations and halt its cyclical reimportation to countries that have defeated it.

Second, focus on the full picture. We must also and at the same time deal with the aftershocks. We are already witnessing the first increase in extreme poverty in 20 years. We know that when communities or countries are subjected to external shocks – a drought, a hurricane, a drop in commodity prices, a war or a pandemic – poor people and poor countries are hit the hardest for the simple reason that they have fewer coping mechanisms to fall back on. But right now, we have one pandemic and two standards when it comes to stabilising economies. The world’s wealthiest countries have taken extreme measures, and rightly so, to stem the bleeding caused by the virus, lockdowns and economic disruptions. Low-income and many middle-income countries don’t have these same options, and absent prompt and equally extreme measures, we will soon witness multiple defaults, insolvency, and the human pain and suffering that collapsing economies inflict. The evidence is stark. Among G20 countries, stimulus funding averages about 22% of gross domestic product (GDP). Among sub-Saharan African countries, that average is just 3%. The world simply can’t afford these double standards. Again, there is an answer at hand, and one that will prove less expensive than would our collective failure to prevent economic collapse. Creditors need to go further and faster to reduce the pressure on the world’s poorest countries. An extended debt moratorium, the allocation of special drawing rights from the International Monetary Fund and debt restructuring can, combined, prevent defaults, generate urgently needed liquidity and protect the development progress made over the last 25 years.

Third, prepare for the next threat. We must seize the opportunity now to reduce the risk that the world will be unprepared for the next viral threat – and we know that more are on the horizon. The world has an unfortunate habit of moving on once a crisis recedes and failing to take on board the lessons and actions that could prevent the next one. It is time to break that habit and make the investments now to shore up our common defences for the next round. The resistance to these measures thrives on the belief that this is a time to focus on ourselves, on our communities and our countries. Surely, we must. But a strategy of every man for himself cannot defeat an unchecked virus. And yet that is exactly what some countries seem to be doing – attempting to hide behind borders the virus doesn’t recognise, buying up as many prospective vaccine doses as possible for domestic use and ignoring calls for greater international co-operation.

The beauty of a global response to a global pandemic is that it is far cheaper than the alternative because it can shorten the lifespan of the pandemic. And that is in the national self-interest of every country in the world. A global response is also the right thing to do, and at a time when people are losing faith in governments, there is a considerable pay-off in signalling that perhaps, in fact, the fairness that is so eagerly sought is not as elusive as it seems.