Global development experts believe that there are three scenarios ahead of us, divided into the good, the bad, and the ugly.
In an article in the Global Policy journal, Professor David Hulme and Dr Rory Horner outline what those scenarios look like: the ugly, effectively global meltdown; the bad, a return to the world we had before, facing climate crisis and rising injustice; and the good, a world that is on a better trajectory than it was in 2019.
“The coronavirus pandemic,” they write, “could change the ‘rules of the game’, for better or worse… Moments of crisis matter. They can be a critical juncture, where actions taken now could have legacies for decades to come.”
On climate change, some governments are actively trying to ensure that actions taken now have a positive legacy, in many cases by building environmental goals into any coronavirus-related bailouts. Notably, this week, the French government told the Air France airline that its €7bn package is contingent on the company meeting strict environmental targets.
It must halve its emissions per passenger and per kilometre by 2030 and cut domestic flights.
The coronavirus crisis provides an opportunity to “reinvent our model of economic development to ensure it is more respectful of the environment,” French economy minister Bruno Le Maire told France Inter radio. The UK government, too, has earmarked funds for post-Covid-19 economic recovery to companies that will reduce carbon emissions.
And leading economists back up the policy: investments which reduce emissions are the most cost-effective way to boost economies hit by the pandemic, a study found this week.
The study, which was published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy, found that projects like boosting renewable energy created more jobs and higher short-term returns.
“The Covid-19-initiated emissions reduction could be short-lived,” said Cameron Hepburn, lead author of the study. “But this report shows we can choose to build back better, keeping many of the recent improvements we’ve seen in cleaner air, returning nature and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.”
In Pakistan, out-of-work labourers have been put back to work planting billions of trees across the country. Portugal is preparing several multi-billion euro projects, including a new solar-powered hydrogen plant. Even Australia – the highest per-capita carbon emitter in the world – has invested A$300 million (£153m) to kickstart a new renewable energy project to fund research into hydrogen technology.
The good, the bad and the ugly
These are huge, top-down interventions, of course, which rely on major ideological changes across the globe.
“That’s the whole other question in terms of what will be the positive things coming out of this crisis,” Dr Horner said.
He sees it as a moment to abandon the outdated global reliance on the US as ‘leader’ – enshrined in the power distributions in organisations like the UN that were set up after the last crisis, World War II.
The US withdrawal of funding for the World Health Organization at this key moment, he argues, is a sign of the changed world. And there’s a silver lining in how other countries and organisations have stepped up to fill that void.
“We need a whole new way of coordinating the world,” he said. “Can the rest of the world come together to set up a more functioning international governance system?”
That need can be seen again in the delays to agreeing a global ceasefire called for by the UN, currently stalled by tensions between the United States and China.
Issues like this, of course, represent the caveats to all the hope for change post-pandemic. The scenario could easily become ‘the ugly’ after Covid-19, with fighting erupting globally, the climate and the world’s poorest forgotten in the race for economic recovery, and education suffering for a generation.
But many suggest that the pandemic can be a watershed moment for positive change.
Experts have argued that, because this is an unprecedented global health crisis, it is also an unprecedented global health opportunity.
As Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, chair of the board at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, told Devex: “The realisation that the economic costs of a pandemic can be huge, far surpassing investments in research and prevention, will lead to billions more dollars of investment in research, vaccines, therapeutics, and non-medical methods of prevention.
“This will mean that trillions of dollars in economic losses, loss of life, and loss of livelihoods for millions of poor people all over the world will be averted.”
The never-before-seen investment in things like the drive for a global coronavirus vaccine – and the efforts that will be involved in distributing it – could also massively benefit the battle against other vaccine-preventable childhood diseases, such as polio and diphtheria.
But it could also be the small innovations that make a big difference.
Since coronavirus first began to spread, one of the key public health messages has been that hand washing is one of the major ways to protect yourself.
This may have huge positive knock-on effects for public health on a global basis.
In Ethiopia, Save The Children has managed to reach around 60 million people – more than half of the population – with a catchy song on hand washing led by local celebrity, Rahel Getu. It is broadcast on social media, major TV networks, and through religious groups.
In other countries, vans with loudspeakers are getting the message out and some are using graffiti.
“In communities where hand washing is perhaps less common, this will hopefully become a standard part of life, which would help reduce the spread of other diseases, like diarrhoea,” Matthew Sugrue, country director for Save the Children in Ethiopia, said. He added that the charity had also distributed jerry cans with taps and soap to help improve access to facilities.
Pneumonia, the world’s biggest killer of children, is also effectively tackled by hand washing. Around 2,000 children currently die of the disease every day.
But as the children in the song put it, bouncing merrily around on camera with a brightly coloured background: “We wash our hands… We are healthy.”
In the short-term of this crisis, that is what the world is hoping for; but perhaps what these examples have shown is that, long-term, there could be the scope to hope for more.
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