Covid-19 and Fragile Contexts: Reviving Multilateralism’s Promise to ‘Leave No One Behind’

Emily Wasik Covid-19 Vulnerable Populations International Rescue Committee IRC Economist Intelligence Unit EIU Report

Emily Wasik Covid-19 Vulnerable Populations International Rescue Committee IRC Economist Intelligence Unit EIU Report

Emily Wasik Covid-19 Vulnerable Populations International Rescue Committee IRC Economist Intelligence Unit EIU Report

The covid-19 pandemic is projected to cause up to 3.2m deaths in fragile contexts. Low-income countries and fragile states are at risk of being disproportionately affected because they have the least resources and infrastructure to grapple with the pandemic’s dire health and economic repercussions. While protecting the health and safety of those most in need is the collective responsibility of the multilateral system, its response to covid-19 has been strikingly slow, ineffective and underfunded. Failure to mobilise the rapid, co-ordinated action required to contain the virus has resulted in nearly 900,000 deaths on a global scale. It has also caused devastating disruption to the lives and livelihoods of billions of people and precipitated a rollback of hard-fought progress towards global development goals.

This report aims to investigate the contributing factors to the multilateral system’s failure to protect fragile populations from the worst impacts of covid-19. Drawing on comparisons with previous global crises, it will evaluate the pivotal response failures across three areas: a vacuum of global leadership; insufficient funding; and a lack of global co-operation. Lastly, it will outline seven solutions that could help global players to navigate covid-19 more effectively in the near term and strengthen collective preparation for future global crises. Its key findings include: 

Multilateralism has broken its promise to the world’s most vulnerable. Rather than mobilising quickly and acting decisively to contain the outbreak, the early global response to covid-19 has been categorised by an absence of leadership, an inadequate fiscal response and a lack of co-operation and information-sharing. Stronger political will and international co-operation frameworks are required to mitigate the pandemic’s adverse effects on lives and livelihoods globally, and in fragile settings in particular.

Nationalism, interstate competition and political instability fractured the foundation of the multilateral system, leaving many countries to “go at it alone”. When the pandemic hit, some of the world’s most powerful nations retreated from their typical leadership roles. Pivoting inwards, they prioritised the safety and security of those within their borders: travel bans were enforced, information-sharing was neglected, export restrictions were implemented and WHO recommendations were ignored. Despite the multilateral mechanisms in place to navigate global public health emergencies and address their economic, social and political repercussions, heightened geo-political tensions and rivalries between China, Russia and the US at the UN Security Council in particular led many countries to adopt a unilateral approach.

While countries have allocated an almost unprecedented US$8trn in domestic economic stimulus packages, financing for the global health emergency response has been slow and inadequate. As of September, just 25% of the US$10.37bn Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan was funded, with just 18.7% going to NGOs. More broadly, just 11% (US$1.1bn) of the US$9.9bn covid-19 health funding pledged to date has been disbursed. 

Deficiencies in communication and co-ordination have hindered effective crisis response in fragile contexts. Insufficient data availability in fragile contexts due to limited laboratory and testing capacity combined with inadequate data-sharing practices have made it difficult to put together a truly global picture of the extent of the covid-19 crisis. Despite its mandate to co-ordinate responses to global health emergencies, many countries have also diminished the credibility and effectiveness of the WHO by flouting its guidance and recommendations. Examples of collaboration among scientists, however, show that models for better co-operation are possible. 

Government leaders, policy makers and humanitarian actors must take co-ordinated, collective action to navigate covid-19 in the short term and mitigate its negative impacts in the long term. This will require the revival of commitments to multilateralism’s promise by recognising that collective problems require collective solutions. This includes short-term action as well as long-term reform to strengthen the ability of the multilateral system to respond to both the current pandemic and future crises. 

Recommendations for immediate action include: 

  • Commit to covid-19 vaccine development and distribution as a global public good. Scientists are moving at an unprecedented speed to develop a covid-19 vaccine. Once ready, initial doses should be allocated equitably on the basis of need, not wealth, with healthcare workers and vulnerable populations first in line. 
  • Remove bureaucratic constraints to the delivery of humanitarian action and services in fragile and war-torn contexts. Restrictions on the export of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other crucial medical supplies should be lifted by all countries. Similarly, travel and movement restrictions put in place to contain the spread of covid-19 must make humanitarian exceptions in order to ensure the continued flow of essential resources and personnel to support response efforts in fragile states. 
  • Leverage technology and new partnerships to distribute resources and supplies in a more transparent fashion. Digital platforms provide an opportunity to engage a broader set of stakeholders and enable more affordable, efficient and transparent procurement of essential supplies. 
  • Incorporate vulnerable populations in national covid-19 response plans and national development plans. Given that vulnerable groups are disproportionately affected by covid-19, national pandemic response plans should ensure the inclusion of at-risk and displaced populations as a first step. Longer-term investments in building robust and resilient health systems in low- and middle-income countries should address the specific needs of vulnerable populations.

Recommendations to improve long-term crisis preparedness and resilience include: 

  • Strengthen existing institutions to enhance their capacity to meet their global mandates. Reforms should be made and additional investment allocated to the WHO, among other UN agencies, in order to strengthen their core activities, including effective pandemic response. 
  • Make existing institutions and platforms for co-operation more accountable and responsive by incorporating a broader array of stakeholders. Fostering partnerships between non-governmental organisations (NGOs), philanthropic bodies, research institutions and businesses can help to balance power within the multilateral system, drive change from the bottom-up, deepen trust in multilateral institutions and facilitate the collaboration required to develop innovative solutions to complex global problems.
  • Provide more rapid, sustainable and flexible financing to support vulnerable populations. Multi-year financing and more agile financing mechanisms would enable government agencies and NGOs to respond more nimbly to emergencies. Additionally, reducing financing costs would incentivise governments to invest in longer-term preparedness across health systems and social assistance programmes.