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A revitalized sense of solidarity to protect and invest in people during COVID-19

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As 2020 comes to a close, investing in people is more important than ever, as we see the devastating impact that COVID-19 is having on people and economies worldwide .

A recent World Bank report warns that by the end of this year, an additional 115 million people may have fallen into extreme poverty, defined as living below $1.90 a day. The poorest and most vulnerable people across the world suffer disproportionately as the pandemic threatens their health, nutrition, education, safety, and well-being for the future.  To respond effectively, we must come together as never before – through a new level of unified and collaborative action to protect hard-won gains in human capital.

Many governments are prioritizing efforts to protect and invest in their people

A progress report from the Human Capital Project notes that many countries have made strong investments in people both before and during the pandemic. While encouraging progress has been made, much work remains ahead of us – especially as COVID-19 threatens to wipe out a decade of development gains.

Worldwide, a child born pre-COVID-19 could expect to achieve on average just 56 percent of his or her potential productivity as a future worker.  The losses in future productivity are especially stark in low- and middle-income countries, where the average Human Capital Index values are 37 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

In low-income countries in particular, human capital challenges remain immense:  just 93 percent of children are expected to survive to age 5 and only 65 percent of them will not be stunted; they will complete, on average, 7.6 years of school, which will translate to 4.3 years when adjusted by the quality of learning; and only 75 percent of 15-year-olds will live to age 60, cutting short the lives of many in low-income countries.

These challenges are magnified by the additional burden of the COVID-19 pandemic, strengthening the case for deeper investments in education, health, social safety nets, and many other sectors that can bring human capital benefits to catalyze a resilient recovery.

And here, the International Development Association (IDA) has been the largest single international source of funding for protecting and investing in people, providing annually billions of dollars in support for the poorest. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, we are proud to support the rollout of free primary education in the poorest parts of the country. In Niger, we have supported the country’s effort to reduce gender gaps, a core part of its social development and demographic transition strategy. Cash transfers are being scaled up through IDA across many countries worldwide, including Cambodia, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mozambique, and Sudan. Countries including Honduras are capitalizing on new social registries to better reach people in need. In Myanmar, IDA has helped electrify over 20,000 public facilities, targeting schools and health clinics in particular.

Our partnership with middle-income countries through IBRD is helping countries strengthen systems and reimagine service delivery for better outcomes. For example, Egypt is piloting universal health insurance, with temporary financial protection for the most vulnerable. Cash transfers are being expanded in many countries – safety net programs in the Philippines, Peru, Serbia and Bolivia cover over half their national populations.

The pandemic calls for a new level of unified and collaborative action

There is no shortage of inspiring examples of countries working to safeguard budgets, prioritize, and innovate at the country level. We need to come together globally as one international community, with a revitalized sense of solidarity around how we tackle the pandemic and, importantly, how we work to prevent or mitigate future crises.  Just as the pandemic knows no boundaries, our efforts against it—from a cooperative approach to sharing critical supplies, such as vaccines, to a universal concern for those left unemployed, sick, or starving—must transcend to a new level of unified and collaborative action. Protecting people and their human capital is everyone’s responsibility. If we fail to recognize this, the fallout will affect us all for generations to come.

"We need to come together globally as one international community, with a revitalized sense of solidarity around how we tackle the pandemic and, importantly, how we work to prevent or mitigate future crises."

Our board has recently approved an envelope of up to $12 billion to help developing countries buy and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments for their citizens. As you know, it’s one thing to have vaccines in the factory, and another thing altogether to get these vaccines to everybody who needs them, regardless of where they are and what they can afford. A priority will be to make sure the necessary deployment infrastructure - such as cold chain - is in place in the various countries. Toward that end, the World Bank is undertaking an assessment of readiness with governments and other multilateral organizations such as WHO and UNICEF, to highlight gaps and identify measures that need to be taken.

World Bank financing, complementary to the COVAX facility, led by Gavi, CEPI, and WHO, will support countries in the purchase and delivery of COVID vaccines.  Together with the efforts of COVAX, this could cover at least 20% of the population of developing countries, as an immediate priority. We will also support countries manage safe transportation of vaccines, cold storage, and the last mile of delivery to the most vulnerable, including the elderly and frontline health workers.

We must support countries as never before to help governments prioritize investments in people

These efforts are only a few examples of many to better protect and invest in people through the pandemic. Yet, while we are going in the right direction globally – it is not enough in a crisis of this magnitude.

To avoid further impact on people, we must support countries as never before with financing, capacity building, and knowledge sharing that will help governments to prioritize investments in people and implement policy reforms that respond to both immediate and medium-term needs. We need to do this particularly in low-income and fragile countries, and in middle-income countries that will be home to an increasing number of poor people with low human capital – places where hard-won gains are most at risk.

I am confident that together, we can get back on track toward the Sustainable Development Goals and not only avert profound human capital losses for an entire generation, but help improve their prospects with stronger and more equitable systems to serve them.  

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Authors

Axel van Trotsenburg

World Bank’s Senior Managing Director (SMD)

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