Local heroes: The untold story of the COVID-19 pandemic

Wednesday, 26 January 2022 15:01 GMT

An airport technician operates an anti-pandemic robot named Jasiri, used for temperature screening, disinfection, communication of health messages and data capture amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spread at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, Kenya February 12, 2021. REUTERS/Monicah Mwangi

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How have local communities supported the global response to the pandemic?

By Achim Steiner, administrator, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history. Wildlife is in catastrophic decline. And global negotiations on climate action like COP26 often fall short of their ambitious targets. It is no wonder that many people feel helpless or even hopeless in the midst of a deadly disease that echoes the plague of the dark ages. Yet, since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, a once in a generation wave of home-grown innovation has swept across the globe that can unlock critical solutions to key challenges like climate change. Concerted efforts must be made to sustain this surge -- giving the innovators and entrepreneurs of the world the space to breathe.

The home-grown, technology-led solutions to the pandemic have been remarkable -- and often surprising. Look to Rwanda and Kenya, where robots have been deployed in COVID-19 treatment centres to minimise the risk of spreading infection between health workers and patients. And digital solutions were often literally lifesaving to those forced into poverty as the virus struck. Overnight, thousands of small businesses were forced to shut, while millions of people were confined to their homes as lockdowns took effect -- unable to travel to receive social protection payments, traditionally paid in cash. From Honduras to Nigeria, countries used the power of digital finance to support electronic cash transfer programmes.

Technology powered a range of other critical solutions. With one in three children missing out on remote learning globally when COVID-19 shuttered schools, countries such as Moldova rapidly deployed a new online platform to offer virtual classes. Libya rolled out a massive telemedicine initiative -- hundreds of doctors now offer virtual medical consultations and e-prescriptions -- vital services during COVID-19. As the virus hit, a shadow pandemic of gender-based violence swept across the globe. In response, Montenegro, for instance, rolled-out the Be Safe mobile app, which can immediately connect victims of domestic violence to professional teams who offer support and advice. As many countries simply shut down their courts during the pandemic, Fiji established an e-court system to allow people to gain timely access to justice.

The pandemic has demonstrated that local communities possess many of the bright ideas needed to tackle the world’s stubborn challenges. This is the thinking behind the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Accelerator Labs network, the world's largest and fastest learning network on sustainable development challenges. Now serving 115 countries, the labs supported small businesses and local artisans to create more than one million face masks as supply chains ground to a halt. The labs are also supporting innovators like Erico who is scaling-up a drone system designed to deliver medical supplies to remote communities in Cabo Verde, for example.

Yet the innovators and entrepreneurs of the world need much more support and long-term financial investment in their grassroots solutions to tackle our climate and nature crises -- from both Governments and the international community. Many countries will need to transform their outdated systems, including updating laws and regulations to give grassroots innovators and entrepreneurs the space to experiment, to fail, and to try again. In particular, developing countries need support to implement a just transition from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy that will bring electricity to the nearly 800 million people who have been left in the dark. And we have the solutions: everything from clean cooking innovations and solar-powered water pumps to new business models for clean energy mini-grids and renewable energy batteries. The task is now to roll them out at scale and support new innovations to power homes, hospitals, schools, and businesses and drive down greenhouse gas emissions. And critically, we need to make a conscious effort to learn from local innovators to hear what they tell us about shaping a global green economy.

Given that many of the solutions will involve digital disruption, the 2.9 billion people still offline need access to affordable internet as a priority. A worthwhile investment of $428 billion could achieve universal broadband connectivity by the end of this decade.

This much is clear: COVID-19 has consigned the top-down development model to history. Local heroes will be the source of many of the development solutions that are needed to achieve the Global Goals, towards that greener, more sustainable future for all.

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