No country has escaped the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the profound economic crisis it has unleashed. We are learning ways to control the spread of the virus, but the number of infections—already more than 26 million confirmed cases worldwide—is still on a relentless upward trajectory. The economic impact, however, will probably hurt most people a lot more than the virus itself.

Some countries are finding pathways back to a cautious recovery from the first wave of the pandemic. To help their own economies, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and G20 countries have produced stimulus packages amounting to $11 trillion—approximately 10 per cent of global gross domestic product. They were right to do so. Other countries are teetering on the edge of disaster. They don’t have the options that are available to richer countries. They have been left wanting international support that measures up to the challenges they face. Many of these countries were already experiencing a humanitarian crisis before the pandemic hit. Infection rates are now rising, and the most vulnerable—women and girls, people with disabilities, older people—are bearing the brunt.

The United Nations Secretary-General launched the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19 (GHRP) on 25 March to help countries in need. The plan has since been updated twice. The requirements today stand at $10.3 billion to support 250 million people in 63 countries. Yet, five months after its launch, the plan remains less than 25 per cent funded (as at 1 September 2020). Such an inadequate response from wealthier nations is short-sighted and not in anyone's best interests—including the richer countries. Failing to stem the pandemic and its socioeconomic consequences is a recipe for much larger and more expensive problems later. The virus must be brought under control everywhere, or it will continue to circle the globe and return to places where we thought it had been subdued. There is no alternative while we wait for a safe and effective vaccine, and a system to ensure an adequate level of immunization globally.

The economic cost of inaction is huge: countless millions more people being pushed into extreme poverty, decades of development progress lost, and the shadow of a generation’s worth of tragic and exportable problems looming. The World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that 270 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of this year. Essential health services—immunization, malaria prevention, HIV/AIDS control, safe delivery and infant care—have been interrupted. Health-care facilities are overwhelmed, staff lack personal protective equipment and people stay away out of fear of contagion.

A particularly grim aspect of the pandemic is that gender-based violence has increased dramatically, with calls to dedicated hotlines increasing eight-fold in some countries. Money can help address these problems. With the funds available, United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations on the frontlines are making good progress implementing the GHRP:

Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, chairs a virtual briefing on the Humanitarian Situation in Lebanon. 10 August 2020. United Nations, New York. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

These are tangible results that are possible when funding is available, including through the Central Emergency Response Fund and country-based pooled funds managed by my office, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Projects supported by these funds have already reached more than 20 million people with health awareness campaigns as well as personal protective equipment, health kits and medical supplies. I am grateful that many donors have contributed to the response. But much more is needed in the immediate and longer term. We are facing colossal, exceptional problems.

In the immediate term, we need increased financial support to the GHRP and other complementary initiatives. Crucially, we need international financial institutions to develop a new playbook to release money to meet the needs of people in the most vulnerable countries.

Recent history shows that wealthy nations can deal with problems at home and abroad at the same time. After the financial crisis of 2008-2009, fundraising for United Nations-coordinated humanitarian appeals increased in an expression of international solidarity. It makes public health sense to help all countries fight the virus. It makes economic sense to act promptly and generously in the most fragile settings to prevent the worst scenarios. There’s no need to wait until we hit rock bottom to learn that lesson.

4 September 2020

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