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COVID-19 is the gravest immediate threat to countries across the globe. An all-of-society, collaborative response is essential at every level: from international cooperation through to community action.

A think piece by TPI Executive Director, Darian Stibbe.

Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is the widest and fastest-spreading public health emergency for a century and has thrown our worlds into unknown territory. In countries where the virus has taken hold, health systems have been overwhelmed, and hundreds of thousands of people are expected to die. Companies are going bankrupt, many immediately, some being kept on life support by government intervention with the resulting loss of millions of people’s livelihoods. The very fabric of our society is being torn apart, with our freedom of movement and social lives restricted in ways most countries have not seen outside of wartime. The fragility of our societies has been laid bare and our assumptions about the worth and limitations of the public and private sectors, about which jobs are considered to be of value, about the very nature of the relationship of business, society and the eco-system, must all be re-examined.

SUNSHINE COAST, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 23, 2020: Coronavirus changing everyday life. One person takes precautions in a country supermarket wearing a hazmat suit. Source : Sue Moxon /

In many ways, the Sustainable Development Goals were a culmination of just such a process of re-examination of assumptions. While still relatively unknown to the general public, the SDGs – a global agenda for action committed to by 193 countries in 2015 – set out a future vision for all our nations that unites public, private and civil societal interests: a vision in which societies flourish, business prospers and the environment thrives. And it is this common vision, defined by a set of specific goals and targets from access to clean energy to education, health to gender equality, that helps governments to set their priorities and take action collectively with the rest of society to transform their nations. 

Find out about TPI’s rapid response programme

There are three key lessons coming from the SDGs that give strong guidance to how we must approach the current COVID-19 crisis. Firstly, we live in a highly complex, interconnected world and simple or business-as-usual solutions will fail. Secondly, the power of governments is limited, and an all-of-society approach is imperative: every sector of society – whether public, private or ‘people’ – must respond, adapt and bring their unique resources to the fight. And thirdly, coordination and innovative collaboration within and across societal sectors are essential – at every level – to maximize collective value and make the most of the resources we have.

We live in a highly complex, interconnected world

In the face of such intense crisis, we are seeing how individual lives, public services and private business are intertwined in a complex, interconnected mesh. The decisions governments are having to make must balance multiple priorities. Governments shutting down everyday life to contain the spread of COVID-19 will save lives, but at what cost? Some countries may have the resources to keep their people safe and support their businesses, while riding out the crisis and hopefully quickly re-building afterwards. Others will have their economies damaged beyond repair leading to ongoing humanitarian crises – and loss of life – potentially for decades to come.

There are no easy answers, no easy solutions. The inter-connectedness from local to global – whether for specific supply chains or across whole economies – means that any decisions made by a government will have repercussions at all levels within that country, as well as rippling out internationally. Many such repercussions will be chaotic and unpredictable and they will both impact, and require action, well beyond the usual reach of government.

An all-of-society approach is required

Governments cannot hope to tackle the crisis alone. Not only do they lack the required resources to respond, the situation is so complex that a top-down, micro-managed, state-directed response will fail on contact with the messiness of real life. We need the resources of all societal sectors, and for every level of government, every company, every organisation, every individual to respond and bring their resources to the table.

There are already multiple examples of this happening:

We are seeing companies retooling their production lines to produce critical items like personal protection equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer and medical equipment. Global tech companies are making their digital connection services available for free and telecoms companies working with governments to disseminate public health guidance, as well as widening internet access to rural communities. Other companies that cannot operate are supporting their employees to instead volunteer in the community.

Psychiatry associations are making the services of their members available for free to people suffering from the mental health stress of isolation. Pubs and restaurants are changing their business models to delivery or pick-up only and supermarkets are reserving the first hour of shopping for the most vulnerable so that they can shop without having to fight for stocks that are low and to avoid being in contact with too many people. 

“Inside the word “emergency” is “emerge”; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibility are sisters.” (Rebecca Solnit) 

Local governments are changing how they operate and the services they support, moving resources over to the essentials and using their resources in different ways, such as turning shutdown schools into childcare for key workers. Community action groups are organising community-based responses where volunteers help to look after the most vulnerable or those infected with COVID-19. In Algeria, a plethora of grassroots, citizen-led initiatives, have included neighbourhood volunteer cleaning/disinfection teams, working with municipal authorities to help guide/conduct cleaning of public spaces. 

Households and individuals have had to adapt their behaviour, working from home for those lucky enough to be able to do so, educating children at home where possible, turning pub quizzes and Friday night discos into virtual events for the community. 

While all such individual actions are essential and welcome they are not sufficient. Could stronger coordination and greater alignment allow us to achieve more? 

Multi-stakeholder collaborative action at multiple levels is essential

As we set out in the Partnership Accelerator’s new guidebook on partnering (written with UN DESA – sign up here to get it first), working in collaborations within and across societal sectors allows the smartest use of the resources we have and can deliver transformational change that would be impossible without collective action. Multi-stakeholder approaches allow a range of key levers, from government, from business, from civil society, from academia, to be applied that together are essential to fight COVID-19, including:

  • Policy/regulation/taxation: From a public health perspective, a plethora of policy and regulation changes are rapidly being put in place to prevent, contain and control the spread of the virus. In response, measures to counter the societal and economic impact of the response are needed. For business, some regulations being eased, administrative deadlines are extending and approval for essential activities is being fast-tracked.
  • Influence/behaviour change: Behaviour change communication has been of paramount importance, particularly with regards to handwashing and social distancing. Grounded in evidence from the scientific community, public service announcements from Ministries of Health in partnership with relevant actors including media and creative agencies, international organisations and local civil society groups have been crucial in disseminating the messages to all parts of society. The UK’s Department for International Development and Unilever have announced a £100M collaboration around handwashing with soap, aiming to reach 1bn people.
  • Innovative technologies: Innovation from both private companies and public facilities have included drones to deliver essential supplies, artificial intelligence to assist contact tracing, 3D printing of single-use medical equipment. The pandemic has provided endless opportunities for new technologies to be explored and deployed, at scale and at speed that would be impossible without effective collaboration. 
  • Access to evidence, information and data: Research scientists within academia, public health systems and companies are working to pull together data from a range of usual and unusual sources. The data from airlines about passenger travel have allowed countries to predict when to expect a major increase in cases. New sources outside of traditional government health system include apps that, by having millions of people report their state of health each day, can allow the most accurate tracking of the spread of COVID-19. The need for contact tracing has led to examples of cooperation between governments and mobile service providers to pinpoint the movements of those who have tested positive – it will be essential to partner with the right stakeholders to balance public health management and privacy rights. 
  • Re-organisation of value chains: Large disruptions in value chains will increasingly give rise to alternative means of producing, storing and delivering products and services. How effective these are will depend on the quality of partnerships between producers, suppliers and retailers with policy makers as they organise themselves into (and strengthen existing) industry groups, unions and other cooperative entities. 
  • Reallocation of resources: Globallyfunds are being raised including the UN COVID-19 Multi-Partner Trust Fund and the Global Fund to fight Tuberculosis, AIDS and Malaria has repurposed their funding allocations to their recipient countries go immediately towards COVID-19, without having to wait for donor clearance. Private funders and foundations are pivoting entire funding packages to respond to the crisis with far simplified, easy access, flexible financial support for charities on the frontline. Large international non-governmental organisations more used to deployment in humanitarian hotspots  – including Médecins Sans Frontières, EMERGENCY, and INTERSOS – have been working with Italian public health workers.

How can we best drive the cooperation we need? 

There is no shortage of goodwill and desire to act. For once, the epithet ‘we are all in it together’ is true, but the efforts can only be fully harnessed if they are aligned. This can’t be done by government diktat – attempts to organise and micro-manage everyone’s response removes agency and reduces commitment.

Instead, for a more coherent societal response to emerge, firstly, governments must set a clear vision and direction – a ‘polar star’ that developing action, whether individual or multi-stakeholder, can align and contribute towards.

Secondly, there must be buy-in from individuals and organisations from across the sectors and at all levels to the common vision. In normal times, such a common vision would be developed collectively to ensure both validity and buy-in. In the current crisis, a collective fear is a huge incentive for action, but buy-in to the polar star vision relies on people trusting the government and being willing to follow their lead. 

Thirdly, people and organisations must be properly informed and have access to accurate data – and accurate interpretation of data – on which to base their actions. Exemplary communication is therefore essential.

Finally, there need to be in place more mechanisms to support coordination of efforts in order to ensure we can together deliver ‘more than the sum of our parts’ and maximize our impact.

Governments that are not open with the public, that oversell their capabilities or lie about the actions they have taken, both risk losing that trust, and risk making badly informed decisions. In many countries, early misinformation and over-complacency by government leaders resulted in misguided or far too slow a response by the whole of society. 

A post-COVID world – #BuildBackBetter

In usual times, in most countries, we see a battle among individual interests, public interests and corporate interests. We see some individuals and businesses ‘winning’ at the expense of the rest of society or the environment, resulting in inequalities, insufficient investment in the public system and environmental degradation. The weight and urgency of the current crisis have proven sufficient to force a realignment of those interests in the immediate term, resulting in plenty of evidence of individual and collaborative action for the betterment of all.

In the UK, the public is keenly judging how businesses are reacting to the crisis. Companies that fulfil the social compact, that step up to the plate and go out of their way to support their staff, their suppliers, their communities are being celebrated. Those companies that retreat into themselves, lay off their staff with no notice, refuse to pay their more vulnerable suppliers, and seek to protect their profits at all costs, are receiving public opprobrium and, rightly, will fair badly once economies restart.

As we eventually move past the crisis, how can we, individually and collectively, ensure both to learn the lessons from COVID-19 and build on the momentum created by us all working together? How do we avoid the ‘shock doctrine’ envisaged by Naomi Klein and instead find the ‘hope in the dark’ described by Rebecca Solnit? How can we best seize the opportunity to reform our societies in ways that hardwire that alignment of interest across all sectors of society towards the SDG vision of prosperous business, flourishing society and a thriving environment?

After all, while COVID-19 may be stressing us now, extreme weather events and fires across the globe show that climate breakdown has already begun and, if unchecked, will cause a crisis orders of magnitude greater than COVID-19. Talk of a ‘return to normal’ obscures the fact that ‘normal’ is, for vast numbers of people in the world, already a state of crisis and ‘normal’ has us on the trajectory towards climate disaster.

The new normal must be a far more resilient, inclusive and sustainable one. And that can only be achieved if all sectors of society can realign and collectively develop and commit towards an ambitious, common vision for the future we want. COVID-19 has already shown that this approach is possible. But now we need leaders from all sectors of society to step and demonstrate the extraordinary leadership and commitment necessary to make it happen.

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Julia Gilbert
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