Pascale Meige, Director IFRC Disaster and Crisis Department
Richard Blewitt, IFRC Permanent Observer to the United Nations
Maarten van Aalst, Director Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre
The diagnosis: the COVID-19 pandemic as an x-ray of our vulnerability to shocks
The COVID-19 pandemic and its indirect economic impacts provide an X-ray of our strengths and our vulnerability to shocks. Strong community structures, good public health policies, and comprehensive social protection are paying off like never before. While humanitarians are called upon everywhere to support the response, the need is especially acute in places where those systems are weaker. By responding to those humanitarian needs, humanitarians are gaining a first-hand insight into where regular systems lack the capacity to cope with today’s compound risks.
The challenges become even more pronounced where COVID-19 mixes with other risks. For instance, some communities in East Africa now face flooding, locusts, increased food insecurity due to COVID-19 restrictions and its economic fallout, and in some places conflict, all in addition to the immediate health threats of the pandemic. In Uganda, a landslide triggered by massive rainfall in a degraded river basin wiped away a hospital that was even more critical during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Several of these threats – such as storms, floods, droughts, heat – are on the rise due to climate change – and are bound to continue to increase over the coming years, also creating conditions for new or prolonged displacement.
Yet in places where we have invested in resilience, we can reduce the impact of colliding risks. Most recently, this was demonstrated for instance in the context of cyclone Amphan, where more than three million people were evacuated thanks to accurate advance forecasts. The Bangladesh Red Crescent’s Early Action Protocols were adjusted so that people could be spread over a larger number of shelters, where facemasks were available. In addition, COVID-19 advice was provided alongside the early warnings.
The prescription: invest in resilience in the face of multiple shocks
These challenges and successes should guide the unprecedented investment (over USD 10 trillion) that is currently being shaped to counter the pandemic’s economic impacts – to safeguard jobs and economic growth for the years to come. The way we spend the massive economic stimulus package right now will in many ways define our future for many years to come.
And we will probably only get one shot to make sure this investment not only rescues our jobs and economies, but also keeps us safer from future threats. The cost of COVID-19 and its economic impacts will reduce future capacity to invest. The massive spending on COVID-19 response and recovery is already draining existing and future aid budgets for humanitarian action, sustainable development, disaster risk reduction and climate action, while aid budgets are under threat of cost-cutting in richer countries, and individual donors to humanitarian causes may themselves feel the economic fallout of the pandemic.
So we have a choice. In our quest to restore jobs and livelihoods, will we rebuild our economies as they were, perpetuating patterns of social injustice, economic inequality, and environmental destruction, and simply accept the rising risks coming our way? Many of the “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects that are currently being put forward as part of economic stimulus packages may well construct the risks of the future, rather than addressing existing inequalities and vulnerabilities. Current estimates suggest that less than 0.2% of the nearly USD$12 trillion committed to COVID-19 recovery by the world’s 50largest economies have been committed to stimulate low-carbon, greener elements of their economies.
We have to ensure funding is deployed better. We can create jobs while also building a greener, more resilient society, which leaves no one behind.
Firstly, we need to invest in resilience. Let’s invest in jobs that enable people to withstand future shocks and stresses, and that empower communities to build their self-reliance. Let’s invest in community health workers, local water supply and sanitation systems where basic services are currently lacking. Let’s invest in local renewable power supply solutions for places that currently rely on vulnerable grids or expensive diesel generators and risk losing power, for instance for critical infrastructure such as hospitals, during a storm.
Secondly, lets ensure any recovery is inclusive. Let’s ensure we invest in recovery that benefits the first mile – the communities with the least access to the services they need and the most impacted every time a crisis hits. Let’s ensure that the skills and resources of internally displaced persons, refugees and migrants are part of the solution. And let’s invest in bridging the digital divide, looking at the jobs for the future, especially for those otherwise left behind.
And thirdly, while investing in resilience, our investments should of course be green: investing in the technology and therefore jobs of the future. Take the Maldives for instance, hit hard by the economic impacts of COVID-19. Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, World Bank Country Director for Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka recently said that “Focusing on renewable energy can prove to be a good investment at this time – creating jobs and improving the country’s ability to rebound stronger, when opportunities open up.”
Such investments in green, resilient and inclusive recovery serve the needs of economic recovery and job creation, makes us safer, and also respond to the very urgent global agenda of the Paris Agreement. Unless we bend the curve of global climate action in the next few years, we are doomed to a future of rising risks – with possibly a doubling of humanitarian needs (as projected in last year’s Cost of Doing Nothing report). In the runup to the Glasgow climate Summit next year, we must use the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of the massive COVID-19 recovery investments to hit all these targets at once.
A humanitarian imperative: our role in shaping a green, resilient, and inclusive COVID-19 recovery
As front-line community responders in their local and national context, our National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their 14 million volunteers, including youth volunteers, have been scaling up their response to address the health and socio-economic needs of COVID-19. Being on the frontlines of the climate and health crises, humanitarians like the Red Cross Red Crescent know what is needed to build back better and leave no one behind. We not only see the gaps of current systems, but we also know, for instance, where investments in water and sanitation would not only create jobs, but also enable people to wash their hands when the next disease outbreak arrives, enhancing our collective safety. We know how early warning systems can save lives, but we also understand how they only partly avoid the impacts, and that the same risk information can and should also drive investments that reduce risk more structurally (for instance by replanting degraded hillsides in case of rising flood risk). And some of the critical humanitarian cash programs deployed during the current pandemic could be transitioned into more permanent social protection systems, providing a safety net that can be reactivated in the face of future shocks.
As a humanitarian organization, we can support the linking of existing programs and commitments in the COVID-19 response to reduce existing and emerging risks, and promote sustainable, inclusive and resilient growth. The COVID-19 response must be seen not as a setback, but as a catalyst towards achieving global goals reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement and the Sendai Framework.
We will make these links ourselves, called for in the IFRC Strategy 2030, which lists climate change and environmental crises as one of the top five priorities for this decade alongside ‘evolving crises and disasters’; ‘growing gaps in health and well-being’; ‘migration and identity’; and ‘values, power and inclusion’. These priorities are reflected in the operational strategy of our global COVID-19 appeal, which seeks to address immediate health and socio-economic needs, but also to strengthen the capacity of our National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies for response, readiness and resilience for ongoing and future shocks.
Maybe most importantly, we are able to facilitate these discussions at the local level. More than ever before, this pandemic has demonstrated the value of local capacity. We can no longer fix the shortcomings of our societies by an ever-growing international humanitarian response system. Communities, local governments, local businesses need to be in the lead.
The IFRC already has a seat at the table of the discussions on resilient recovery in places like Geneva, New York, and Washington. But our voice is only as strong as that of the National Societies’ voice in their discussions as auxiliaries to their national governments, or the voice of a local volunteer in her discussions in a local community – at the frontlines of the pandemic response, and thus uniquely qualified to see where investment is needed.
As always, we’ll be there for those in need right now. But let’s also raise our voices, locally, nationally and globally, and shape this once-in-a-lifetime chance for “a new normal” that is greener, more resilient, and more inclusive.