Guest post by Paul Knox-Clarke
While Europe adjusts to a ‘new abnormal’, COVID-19 infection and mortality are still increasing in much of the rest of the world. The global response to this pandemic still has a long way to run, and it is too early to judge how effective emergency management and humanitarian actions have been, particularly in fragile and vulnerable contexts. But it is not too early to identify some key trends in the response to the pandemic, or to think about what they mean for humanitarian responses in an increasingly uncertain – and unpleasant – future.
The most important lesson from COVID-19 is that bad things happen, and that no amount of ignoring the science and the expert predictions will prevent them. Pandemic (albeit of influenza, rather than SARS-COV) was the number one risk identified in the UK’s National Risk Register, and yet the UK government response has been stunningly inept, and the country now has one of the highest death tolls per capita in the world.
Those of us whose jobs revolve around responding to crises can’t afford to ignore expert warnings and hope they will go away. If the strong scientific consensus is that environmental degradation will lead to more zoonotic diseases, or that the carbon already in the atmosphere will lead to massively increased levels of urban flooding and of wildfires[i], then we should be preparing for (different) pandemics, and for huge climate disasters at home and abroad, now.
These preparations should take into account a number of other lessons that we are learning as the pandemic spreads. Two important considerations relate to the attitudes of governments to a global threat.
The first is that international crisis does not necessarily lead to intergovernmental cooperation. While there have been positive examples of solidarity – particularly among pre-existing groups, such as the EU – there have also been many competitive, ‘me first’ actions. And this before a vaccine is available. While politicians compete, international cooperation has been most visible and effective among and between technical and scientific networks, developing vaccines and establishing safety standards.
In many cases, it is these networks and partnerships that are leading the response. Humanitarian agencies tend to live in a limited world, interacting with other humanitarians and with government donors. We don’t get out much. But to prepare for the crises of the Twenty First Century, we should expand our horizons and build new networks with scientific, emergency management, civil society and private sector organisations.
The second consideration related to government is that, faced with a threat of this scale, many governments have extended the responsibilities and authority of the state, often using emergency legislation to suspend civil liberties. This is not, necessarily, malign. In many cases, it might represent a correction from an overly laissez-faire, market-led system: governments recognising and shouldering their responsibilities. But moves to increase control over the public do suggest that governments are concerned about the psychological frailty of their populations, scared of irrational behaviour, and see people as the problem, rather than the solution.
Humanitarians have talked a good game around the importance of popular participation in emergency response for many years –although there has generally been very little to show for it. The imminent global crises of environmental degradation and climate change will give humanitarians a chance to advocate for, and model, approaches that balance the relationship between state, civil society and emergency responders and which allow citizens to demonstrate that they are a fundamental part of any large-scale response.
In fact, local civil society groups are likely to become even more important to emergency response than they already are. This pandemic, like the West Africa Ebola epidemic before it, has demonstrated the fragility of the ‘standard’ international humanitarian response model. You can’t fly emergency teams in if no planes are flying, or if governments impose movement controls.
Global crises like the pandemic upset the global ‘normal’ in ways that are both profound and hard to predict, and if our processes are built on that normal – on fragile ICT, financial, staffing and transport systems – then they are likely to be disrupted just when they are most needed.
Humanitarian organisations need to invest more in resilient approaches, and need to work out how they can operate in what Francois Grunewald has called ‘degraded mode’. Unable to rely on long and fragile supply chains for staff or material, agencies will need to overcome the current blocks to localisation – lack of flexibility in contracting and reporting, failure to provide core funding, and poor communication of expectations and opportunities – to allow a massive tilt to locally-led responses.
So – what has COVID-19 taught us so far? The importance of preparedness, partnership, citizen participation, local action and organisational resilience. Humanitarian readers may have seen these recommendations somewhere before. They may, indeed, have seen them repeated endlessly in every evaluation, at every meeting and workshop, in every policy, for years. That was before COVID. It was before the earth moved out of the climatic and ecological conditions that have existed for the entirety of human history. Words won’t do it now.
Paul Knox Clarke is a
humanitarian expert. He is currently co-developing the Climate and Humanitarian Crisis initiative