OPINION: COVID-19 and fragile places: Building resilience to a pandemic

by Olga Petryniak & Jon Kurtz | Mercy Corps
Thursday, 9 April 2020 09:15 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In fragile and conflict-affected countries, coronavirus is the latest of many risks calling for responses that strengthen resilience

Olga Petryniak is Mercy Corps' Senior Director for Global Resilience.

Jon Kurtz serves as Mercy Corps’ Senior Director for Research and Learning.

From Wuhan to Milan to New York, we are starting to see some glimmers of hope in the public health response to COVID-19. But what works for the world’s wealthiest nations is ill-suited for its poorest. The threat of COVID-19 is exacerbated in places where impoverished families face recurring drought, violence, and hunger. The humanitarian community cannot treat this pandemic as only a public health emergency. The global response must strengthen resilience, and leave communities better prepared to tackle the next, inevitable shock. 

NO STRANGER TO CRISIS

As the news focuses primarily on Europe and the United States, elsewhere COVID-19 is just one of many problems. Locusts are destroying extensive swaths of farmland - over 40% of crops in Pakistan - and causing near-famine conditions in Somalia. As conflict rages in East Africa, Ethiopia is hosting nearly 4 million displaced people. The economic crisis in Lebanon has caused incomes to tank, possibly doubling the levels of poverty. In these fragile places, responses to the COVID-19 crisis must address all underlying threats. 

For instance, UNDP has warned that the current crisis could wipe out nearly 50% of jobs in Africa. This comes on top of already high unemployment and reliance on informal jobs. Many fragile places lack functioning social protection systems to cushion these economic shocks. Remittances are no longer trickling in as overseas workers are laid off in Europe, the US, and the Middle East.

These factors can quickly fuel social and political instability in contexts where perceptions of exclusion and injustice drive extremism and violence. Armed groups are already beginning to exploit the vacuums left by government officials and security forces focusing on the pandemic, with spikes in violence in Somalia, Libya and Mozambique.  

If global COVID-19 mitigation efforts do not address these risk factors, they may unwittingly deepen poverty, hunger and violence for years to come.

WHAT MATTERS FOR RESILIENCE

The COVID-19 response must strengthen sources of resilience that countries and communities rely on to manage major shocks. Our research and experience shows that most critical among these are shoring up local economies, social networks, and local governance.

Strengthen safety nets and markets: Humanitarian organizations are already scaling up cash transfers to vulnerable households, where possible through mobile payments. Cash, however, is of little use if there is no food or other goods to buy. It should be paired with financial support to vendors, traders, and micro-lenders, to keep essential businesses running. Vulnerable families rely on their access to markets to get through crisis, even more than they do on humanitarian aid.

Shore up social networks: Crisis-stricken households rely on their social networks for food, cash, labor, and comfort to get through the worst of times. These social networks will now be more critical than ever -- but also more vulnerable to disruptionLessons from Liberia show effective citizen mobilization can change behaviors to slow the spread of viruses, strengthen connections within and between communities, and build communication channels and trust between citizens. Social distancing will require innovation and digital communication to support mobilization. It will also require advocacy to ensure community groups can engage in safe and essential outreach and mutual support measures.

Promote peace and good governance: While the crisis is imminent, it will also be prolonged. This means humanitarian actors must help create the space for citizens to connect with their local institutions to foster inclusion, counter misinformation, and mitigate conflict. For example, in Jordan, connecting Syrian refugees to local community leaders and government officials to make decisions on basic service provision reduced tension and created connections between refugee and host communities. Promoting peace and good governance in a time of physical distancing will require ingenuity. One option is to repurpose proven digital communication platforms used in elections, or to disseminate agricultural information, to connect citizens to decision-makers and promote remote, but local, dialogue.

In the world’s fragile and conflict-affected places, the novel coronavirus is the latest of many devastating risks. The pandemic calls for an urgent, but thoughtful response. Missteps will deepen suffering and threaten to make the world more hungry and unstable. The time to build resilience is now.