As the world grapples with successive waves of the COVID-19 coronavirus, what lessons can we learn from other health emergencies and humanitarian crises to develop a more effective and accountable response to the pandemic? This paper outlines some of the learning gained in the humanitarian aid sector in accountability around two-way communication, community engagement, and the participation of vulnerable people, and how this can be applied to support this current response.
COVID-19 showed that even countries with strong economies and well-established health and social protection networks struggled to cope with the pandemic. The failure of governments to engage with and communicate effectively with communities and find means for them to participate actively in the response has had devastating – and avoidable – consequences. This impact has been disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable and marginalised people, who often felt they were being overlooked; while official information was in competition with misinformation and rumours, often circulating within communities the authorities had not been able to listen to, or had not known about. So, as the world grapples with further successive waves of the COVID-19 coronavirus, could there be lessons in building a more responsive approach to COVID-19 by learning from other health emergencies and humanitarian crises?
Are there lessons that can help address these shortcomings exposed by the pandemic? If we reframe the health response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a humanitarian relief operation, but on a global scale, it is possible to see how all countries, including those in the West, can draw lessons from nations that already have experience of confronting such humanitarian crises. Nations in the midst of ongoing humanitarian aid programmes related to the Ebola response, refugee relief operations or malnutrition or reconstruction work when the pandemic started had strategies and plans for dealing with a crisis already in place. They were ready to pivot these tools and communicate and engage their own populations to work together to tackle this health emergency. The same could not be said for many Western nations who were not ready in this way. By contrast, countries that have tackled humanitarian crises with few resources and multiple constraints have gained hard-won lessons that helped to facilitate a better response to COVID-19, often using community engagement methods, techniques and systems developed with funding from the very nations now in need of this experience.
This paper distils the learning gained in the humanitarian aid sector which may help to mitigate or even go some way towards solving some of the challenges in working with communities in the COVID-19 response. Key to these lessons from a humanitarian perspective is the question of who should the response measures to the COVID-19 pandemic be answerable to? This question of accountability has been clearly answered in humanitarian settings: it is those people who most need the help, rather than those who administer or pay for the programmes. With this in mind, this paper argues that it is possible to build a new foundation for the planning of pandemic responses that puts people first. It’s possible that, had more countries treated the pandemic like a complex humanitarian crisis and applied good practice in communication, community engagement and accountability, more could have been done to reduce the spread and impact of the virus.
Here then are eight key areas where the global pandemic response can be seen to be falling short, along with the lessons from the humanitarian sector to help remedy them. These lessons may also help to minimise the impact of future health emergencies and humanitarian crises in all countries.
This research paper was produced as part of the CDAC Network project, ‘Keeping ahead of the COVID-19 impact curve in ongoing and emerging disasters using adaptive communication and community engagement approaches’ funded by H2H Network’s H2H Fund, which is supported by UK aid from the UK government.