Beating the coronavirus: Ensuring a socially equitable response

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The coronavirus has devastated households, communities, and people across the globe. It makes no distinction for national boundaries, physical abilities, or socioeconomic levels. It has reached remote communities, urban areas, politicians, health care workers, celebrities, and refugees. Without question, the pandemic, officially known as COVID-19, poses a threat to people everywhere. Yet, some groups will clearly bear the worst brunt of its impact. 

I am one of the lucky ones. About a month ago, I contracted the coronavirus. Fortunately, my symptoms were manageable. I had a persistent fever, body aches, chronic fatigue, burning in my chest, and the characteristic loss of taste and smell. My symptoms lasted what seemed an eternity. For over a week, I felt like each day was endlessly repeating itself. There was also the guilt and worry that I could have infected my colleagues, my friends, and my family, as I must have been contagious before I was symptomatic. The self-isolation was also tough, particularly at a time when I wanted to be engaged in the global response to help mitigate this crisis. But now, four weeks later, I am recovered. I am among the fortunate who have rebounded from it.

COVID-19 poses a threat to people everywhere. Yet, some groups will clearly bear the worst brunt of its impact.

Unfortunately, for so many people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, this pandemic has the potential to be catastrophic.  Those most at risk include migrants trying to practice social distancing while living in overcrowded camps, disabled people who may have difficulties accessing information about public health and prevention of COVID-19, and indigenous peoples who lack the essential services they need to prevent an outbreak. These groups will be disproportionately affected. Unless we take a socially equitable approach to this crisis — one that is concerned with social justice, community development, equity, human rights, and cultural sensitivities — we cannot mitigate the horrendous effects the virus will have on these vulnerable communities.

The lessons from previous pandemics, including the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak, highlight the importance of social responses to crisis management and recovery: these are an essential complement to medical efforts. We’ve learned that responses require a whole-of-society approach, with solutions coming from governments, communities, civil society organizations, and the private sector. This will be especially important now for high-risk and vulnerable populations. Often, responses look to established or well-known systems to relay accurate information and solutions to people. For example, trusted community leaders can influence the behavior of millions of people, helping ensure that accurate and culturally sensitive health messages are conveyed and that assistance reaches those who need it the most. Communities’ collective action is especially important where government delivery channels are weak or overwhelmed, or where there is little trust between citizens and health authorities.  

At the World Bank Group, we are taking broad, fast action to help developing countries strengthen their pandemic response and health care systems to contain the spread and impact of COVID-19.

The first group of projects, amounting to $1.9 billion, will assist 25 countries, and new operations are moving forward in over 60 countries. In addition, we’re working to redeploy resources in existing World Bank-financed projects across every region.

Social development programs are playing a critical role in the World Bank's response to the crisis. They are engaged in multiple and innovative ways — through the Environmental and Social Framework (ESF), operational responses, and new citizen engagement techniques.

Social development programs are playing a critical role in the World Bank's response to the crisis.

As part of this initial response, the Bank is using community-driven development (CDD) programs, an approach that puts communities at the center of designing solutions and allocating resources to respond to the acute financial and material needs of the most vulnerable. CDD programs provide targeted support, for example, to women, unemployed youth, the elderly, returned migrants, and people whose micro and small businesses are facing disruption. They have also been a trusted way to deliver solutions that respond rapidly and flexibly to natural disasters, economic crises, and post-conflict situations.

In Myanmar, as part of the national CDD program, facilitators are delivering local language information on preventing the spread of COVID-19 in partnership with UNICEF. Afghanistan is using the Citizens’ Charter, the country’s most reliable safety net program, to reach about 13 million people across all 34 provinces, in rural and urban areas. Citizens’ Charter is helping the government quickly send out COVID-19 preventative health messages and explore ways to channel funds directly to communities and vulnerable groups. This national CDD program builds on the track record of its predecessor, the National Solidarity Program (NSP), in assisting internally displaced persons (IDPs) and returnees, addressing hunger in difficult seasons and most recently, preparing for Afghanistan’s peace settlement.

Community-driven development will be important in our comprehensive action to stem the social and poverty impacts of COVID-19 and to support the recovery of resilient communities.  Overall, the Bank Group expects to deploy up to $160 billion over the next 15 months to help countries protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery.

For many of the poorest countries, we have an opportunity to change the trajectory of this crisis by using socially equitable approaches. I truly believe we can overcome the worst impacts of this pandemic. And not just for someone as fortunate as myself, but for everyone. 

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