Ideas for Tackling COVID-19 in the Short-Term

by , | Apr 6, 2020

Already, our contributors to the newly relaunched Global Dashboard are churning out new ideas for tackling the coronavirus pandemic in the short-term. 

In a piece first published in World Politics Review, I – having been on lockdown in Italy for three weeks – present a Rough Guide for Getting a COVID-19 Lockdown Right. Honest and clear communication, visible and fair enforcement of new rules, and listening to people’s experiences of confinement are vital for keeping the public onside. Italy is farther down the COVID-19 road than most countries, and I suggest that its experiences can serve as a guide for others:

The challenges facing the world’s governments, but also their populations, in the coming weeks are unprecedented. These challenges will only be more daunting if we fail to learn from the experiences of those further down the path of the pandemic’s spread. Hopefully our experiences here in Italy will help others who now follow closely behind.

While new COVID-19 cases in Italy may be reaching a peak, many low-income countries are at the beginning of their epidemics. One billion people live in informal settlements, or slums, and many observers fear that once the virus reaches them it will be impossible to stop. 

In a piece that was subsequently picked up by South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, Mark Weston, who lived for two years in an informal settlement in Tanzania, lists 8 ideas for tackling the virus in slums. Total lockdowns may be counter-productive in settlements where if people do not go out to work every day they may have nothing to eat, but more limited containment measures could curtail the epidemic’s spread. Enlisting the support of community groups and leaders, Mark argues, is particularly important in informal settlements, both for securing residents’ buy-in to containment strategies and for developing innovative ways to fight the virus:

Communities can develop measures of their own, which may be more appropriate to the local context than broad-based policies developed by central governments. Sudan’s Neighbourhood Resistance Committees, which were instrumental in ousting the dictator Omar al-Bashir last year, have been making and distributing hand sanitisers using alcohol originally intended for use in illicit liquor. During Sierra Leone’s Ebola epidemic, groups of young men used plastic bags and rice sacks to make their own personal protective equipment for conducting safe burials.

The value of community engagement was also emphasised in an interview conducted by Alex and I with Bruce Mann, an emergency planner who coordinated the UK’s response to swine flu. Mann, who observed that a pandemic such as coronavirus “was always going to be horrible”, argued that community resilience to the virus depends on localising the response: 

Effective community resilience is really about the convening power of local governments, not central government, whose role will always be very limited. It is local government which is best placed to identify and connect communities that are thriving or faltering and implement appropriate responses. And that can be done at relatively little financial cost. Unfortunately, the financial crash reduced the capacity of local government, and much local authority work disappeared between 2011 and 2015. But it’s heartening to see communities independently coming together to support each other in tackling COVID-19 where local governments cannot. There are lessons there which I hope can be drawn when the pandemic is over.

To help finance the effort to combat the virus in low-income countries, Save the Children’s Kirsty McNeill draws on years of research to list 12 rules for communication by international NGOs. Garnering the support of rich-country publics for foreign aid is difficult during a crisis where their own families are under threat, but a communications strategy that acknowledges these anxieties while emphasising our interdependence, highlighting successes, and showing that the virus is manageable even in the poorest settings can help to break down the barriers to their support.

As Dr Emma Hannay points out in COVID-19 Immunisation: Preparing for the Perfect Handoff, low-income countries are also most at risk of being left behind when it comes to protecting their citizens through immunisation. The production and dissemination of a vaccine, she argues, is not an individual event, but a relay, requiring an early, co-ordinated effort from the international community to ensure that countries with poor public health infrastructure aren’t left without access.

It isn’t only health that suffers when a pandemic takes hold, and Rachel Locke discusses the social threats posed by the pandemic in terms of increased violence and a proliferation of human rights abuses, especially as cases of the virus continue to rise in low-income and fragile societies. Domestic violence is on the increase in societies experiencing lockdowns, and police in many countries have been accused of using over-harsh enforcement methods that will only serve to decrease trust in containment strategies. 

To maintain peace during and after the pandemic, Rachel argues for a new commitment to multilateral institutions:

Re-investment in our institutions extends to our international systems of cooperation as well. Tackling the coronavirus and the fallout it will bring cannot be accomplished by one nation alone. It’s well overdue to respect, fund, and staff our international institutions to support not only direct service, but also the nuanced negotiations to recover from this pandemic.  

To reduce the risk of increased violence and to strengthen our individual and societal response to the virus, Alex Evans draws on insights from the Collective Psychology Project to make the case for a “tend-and-befriend” rather than a fight-or-flight approach. With the former:

We respond to danger by tending ourselves and our families, and befriending others so as to build dense social networks of mutual assistance. It’s a far more prosocial response to threat. It emphasises our interdependence with one another, and regards it as a source of strength rather than vulnerability. Where fight-or-flight zones out on the individual and pushes us apart, tend-and-befriend focuses on the collective and brings us together.  

Where Rachel Locke emphasised the need for investment in the resilience of international institutions, Alex focuses on our individual resilience. This, he says, depends on whether we feel we have agency to shape our lives, whether we feel we belong rather than feeling alone, and whether we have the self-awareness to choose how to react to events. As he concludes:

All of us need to manage our mental and emotional states now more than ever. Not just for our own wellbeing, but also because our inner states end up affecting everything else around us. That’s the whole point about collective psychology: the state of the world affects our states of mind, and our states of mind affect the world. Coronavirus brings that fact into especially sharp relief.

Finally, Rahul Chandran asks the crucial question of how we can avoid adding a global food crisis on top of a global health crisis, as the latter poses a threat to the foundation of our food chain. With the burden of feeding the world falling disproportionately on the women of the Global South, he urges a response that prioritises listening to women farmers and working with suppliers to mitigate the risks to their wellbeing.

Ideas for Getting the World back on its Feet

The impacts of COVID-19 will be felt for many years to come, and Global Dashboard contributors are also thinking about how to rebuild in its wake. 

As well as obvious threats, the pandemic also brings opportunities – for increased international cooperation, more resilient societies, and a new intergenerational covenant.

Alex Evans raises the possibility that the growing divide between young and old could be narrowed by the former’s willingness to make sacrifices to contain the virus:

Younger people are taking a huge economic hit in order to protect older people. It’s an extraordinary act of solidarity across generations, and one that has the potential to be deeply healing and reunifying at a point when many countries sorely need it.

For this healing to happen, however, the narratives we tell will be critical:

It matters a great deal that we nurture and propagate stories right now about how generations are coming together in a Larger Us, and of how this is a moment when our interests across generations can realign, in which we can put the schisms of Brexit behind us, and rally around a new, hopeful, shared agenda.

This and other hopeful ideas are developed in Planning for the World after the Coronavirus Pandemic, a piece written by Alex and I for World Politics Review. The article argues that international efforts to tackle COVID-19 have so far lagged behind national responses. In a world where populist leaders are attacking rather than collaborating with or helping other countries, it will be up to less narrow-minded governments as well as businesses and ordinary people to develop and implement the global action that is the best way to move forward from the crisis. 

There are three layers to the COVID-19 pandemic – the immediate public health emergency, second-order impacts on economic and social stability, and a “slow-burning social emergency” wherein trust in governments declines, polarisation within and between countries grows, and global peace is threatened. Shared global responses will be needed in each area. As Alex and I argue with regard to the public health emergency:

A shared global response provides governments the cover they need to take and sustain painful public health decisions…Politicians will be much better able to stay the course if they can show they are acting in lockstep with a group of like-minded governments.

For the second-order shocks:

By working together, governments can institute measures where shareholders and creditors take most of the pain, while public funds are used to keep people solvent and get them back to work as soon as it is safe to do so.

And to mitigate the long-term risks to stability:

Democratic governments must build models that are true to their own values, fighting the pandemic not just with the consent of their citizens, but through the active participation of all parts of society. That means bringing leaders from civil society, faith groups, youth organizations and businesses into the heart of the emergency response from the beginning…We urge decision-makers to create space to plan for the medium-and longer-term challenges identified here, and to start immediately developing options for a world after the pandemic has been brought under control.

The above pieces are an early taste of Global Dashboard’s heightened response to COVID-19. We are also working on a new report that fleshes out the thinking in these pieces. We hope you’ll find the increased output interesting and useful, and that you’ll engage the authors in discussions on Twitter and via our Facebook page

In the meantime, stay safe and – where possible – stay home!


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

  • Alex Evans

    Alex Evans is founder of the Collective Psychology Project, which explores how we can use psychology to reduce political tribalism and polarisation, a senior fellow at New York University, and author of The Myth Gap: What Happens When Evidence and Arguments Aren’t Enough? (Penguin, 2017). He is a former Campaign Director of the 50 million member global citizen’s movement Avaaz, special adviser to two UK Cabinet Ministers, climate expert in the UN Secretary-General’s office, and was Research Director for the Business Commission on Sustainable Development. He was part of Ethiopia’s delegation to the Paris climate summit and has consulted for Oxfam, WWF UK, the UK Cabinet Office and US State Department. Alex lives with his wife and two children in Yorkshire.

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