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Predict, prepare, protect: How to manage risk in a post-COVID world

‘Our capacity to predict what lies ahead has never been greater.’

The image shows a blue ice box and mans hand taking the lid off the top.
A health worker takes a dose of the coronavirus disease vaccine from an ice box in Dakar, Senegal 23 February, 2021. (Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS)

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Today, the UN Security Council will hold a special meeting on COVID-19, climate, and conflict. The agenda is a reminder that for millions of people around the world, the pandemic further compounds the crises they were already living through before the virus struck.

COVID-19 has been the greatest global shock since World War II. The number of deaths has surpassed 2.46 million, according to the World Health Organization, while its economic devastation will push 150 million people into extreme poverty this year alone. As many as 1 in 33 people will need humanitarian aid, up 40 percent on last year.

The pandemic has exposed profound weaknesses in the international system’s ability to prepare for and mitigate the effects of crises. Improved international cooperation since the US presidential inauguration stands in stark contrast with last year’s G7 talks, which were reduced to a spectacle, as foreign ministers fell out over a US insistence to rename COVID-19 “the Wuhan virus”.

As with the post-World War II recovery, the 2021 generation of leaders has been handed a historic responsibility to steer the world out of a truly global disaster and to strengthen the international systems that were overwhelmed in 2020.

The stages for these discussions will be, among others, the G7 and UN Climate (COP26) summits taking place in the UK later this year. Similar to the international meetings of 1944 that agreed to the creation of the United Nations to prevent another world war, and to the World Bank and the IMF to aid the post-war recovery, world leaders should be unapologetically ambitious for the outcomes of these 2021 talks.

Agreements should be measured against how they help us prepare for what is to come, as well as how we recover from COVID-19.

The number, impact, and intensity of disasters linked to the climate emergency and environmental degradation have greatly increased in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, the numbers of people forced to flee conflict continues to trend upwards, and has doubled in the past decade. For too many people, coronavirus is the least of their worries.

To show that we have learned the profound lessons of COVID-19, there are three critical issues our leaders should address in the way our world responds to crises:

First, much more pre-arranged funding should be put in place to guarantee that money arrives quickly at the first sign of a disaster. 'Despite repeated warnings about the risk of a zoonotic pandemic, just two percent of the funding needed for COVID-19 response was arranged in advance. While there have been moves to finance anticipatory action and respond to early warnings through funds like the UN’s Central Emergency Relief Fund (CERF), we still predominantly rely on a “begging bowl” system after a shock has occurred, which can see it take up to nine months for food or cash to reach those affected after a drought, for example. Some 55 percent of all humanitarian funding goes to crises that are at least somewhat predictable, yet just one percent of that funding is pre-allocated. As well as causing delays, this approach costs donors more, and undermines the role of local people in shaping how authorities will respond.

Secondly, our disaster financing system needs to be underpinned by a better analysis of the greatest risks, beyond just infectious diseases, and how they should be prioritised for different countries. We must also ensure that communities at risk have access to the information they need to act early. Many experts do a great job covering specific risks, but our collective understanding of crisis risks globally is piecemeal: We can’t compare risks to understand their importance. Without a “global risk register”, we can’t ensure international funding for disaster response is properly aligned. This will mean the system remains reactive and slow, as we have seen with COVID-19. The WHO was aware that a pandemic similar to COVID-19 was likely, but little action was taken in most countries to prepare or put finance in place. It was viewed as just a health concern, and nobody was helping us to understand that a pandemic would be much more than “just” a health crisis.

Finally, leaders should agree to prioritise those most likely to be left behind as the rest of the world moves forward: least-developed countries, fragile and conflict-affected settings, and the places that are most vulnerable to climate shocks. Pre-arranged funding should be prioritised towards supporting the poorest and most marginalised communities who are at most risk from crises, and who also have the greatest ability to act early before a crisis hits. It is becoming increasingly clear that we are losing a decade of progress against extreme poverty because of COVID-19, yet funds are not being allocated to address this. Countries where it is expected that poverty will increase the least as a result of COVID-19 have received $93 per capita, compared to $26 per capita in countries where poverty is expected to increase the most. One of the great tragedies of COVID-19 has been the huge spike in gender-based violence, described as a “shadow pandemic”, yet GBV accounted for only 0.48 percent of the overall funding appeal for the response plan in August last year. By arranging funding in the calm that precedes the storm, we can better address the inequalities that deepen in a crisis.

2021 will be a year of deep reflection, but it must also be a time to look forward. Our capacity to predict what lies ahead has never been greater. We must heed the warnings of what is to come, as well as learn the lessons of the past.

At both the G7 summit and the UN climate conference this year, the Crisis Lookout Coalition is calling for a new approach to disasters that predicts the greatest risks, puts plans in place, and makes sure vulnerable communities have the funds they need when it matters most.

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