COVID-19’s impact on global health and development

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We are as strong as our weakest link!

Reflections of General Director Jean Van Wetter on the future of international cooperation post corona. Extracts of his reflections where previously published on Devex.

The COVID-19 crisis reminds us of our interdependency as human beings and the global nature of the key challenges which our world is currently facing, from climate change to migration, from security to public health. One can sometimes think that strong frontiers or well-managed local communities can protect us from those global challenges, but this crisis shows the contrary. Today we are confronted with a pandemic; tomorrow we will wake up to the reality of another global challenge. We have to stop thinking in isolation. Global challenges require global responses.

This COVID-19 crisis is a wake-up call for more solidarity. Our global health system is only as strong as its weakest link. If a country is left behind, it can endanger the rest of the world. It is therefore crucial to ensure minimum standards in all countries and guarantee a level of global investment to make sure these standards are met. Healthcare for instance is a crucial sector, but minimum standards should also apply for other sectors such as education, governance, security, ecology… I was amazed to see how different European countries were able to thoroughly shift their national policies during the last three weeks, increasing public spending and committing billions of euros to invest in the health sector and their economies. The budget currently spent on international cooperation represents just a tiny fraction of those recovery plans.

This pandemic is a wake-up call for more equality and social protection. Health is a fundamental human right and minimum social protection is crucial to deal with crises like this. I can only hope that this crisis may be an eye-opener to different countries, convincing them that everybody has the right to good healthcare services. Admittedly, the private sector can contribute, but it is the primary role of Governments to provide universal healthcare for all.

Interestingly, this crisis also shows that low-cost innovation can be more effective than expensive high-tech solutions. Countries with only limited resources can teach us a lot as they generally provide more fertile ground for out-of-the-box solutions. You see the same happening now in ‘rich’ countries that are faced with unprecedented difficulties. State-of-the-art hospitals are using snorkelling gear to make protective masks. Many doctors in Europe are now ‘forced’ to apply telemedicine, while many of them had been resisting this new way of work for ages. In Africa ‘remote medicine’ has been common for years… Many ‘rich’ countries are revising their standards to allow for faster development of vaccines and medicines. Many countries in Africa did not have this luxury for ages.

With this crisis, the North-South paradigm is definitely over. The monopoly that traditional ‘development actors’ have had in the last 40 years will quickly erode. China and South Korea used to be aid recipients until not so long ago. Now they are helping the WHO, Italy and other European countries to cope with the crisis. Chinese charities are distributing masks to European Governments, as Europe and the United States have been doing in developing countries for years. Some of the largest hospitals in Europe are now calling for donations from the public. Doctors without Borders (MSF), known for its international operations in conflict and poor areas, is now deploying medical camps in the centre of Brussels!

In this changing context, development agencies such as Enabel will no longer have legitimacy if they act on a stand-alone basis and with a North-South perspective. Changes in attitude are crucial. If we want to remain relevant, we need to specialise in core thematic areas where we can demonstrate international leadership, added value and comparative knowledge. We need to build alliances with a variety of stakeholders, not only with traditional development partners, but also with academic institutions, local and international NGOs, foundations and private companies. We need to be diverse in our workforce and in our governance, ensuring an international perspective to decision-making, innovation and delivery. We need to work in interconnected networks, keeping a capacity to deliver on the ground with a strong local presence and knowledge, while being active on the international development agenda.

Traditional development stakeholders, such as the UN agencies, governmental agencies and international NGOs should demonstrate their role and their added value in the global crisis we now face.

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