COVID-19: Experts discuss long-term humanitarian needs and partnering for the future

The first half of the year 2020 was consumed by the widespread shock and disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant restrictions. What began as a global public health emergency fast turned into a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented magnitude. A digital conversation recently hosted by the ICRC regional delegation in New Delhi, in partnership with the O. P. Jindal Global University, Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), Sonipat, India, underscored the vital need for a concerted intersectoral response to mitigate the unique and colossal consequences of the ongoing crisis.

The medium and long-term impact on economies and societies is becoming more clear as the haze gradually lifts. The situation has touched each and every one of us — our families, friends and communities. The humanitarian and development sector, private institutions as well as States must urgently focus on potential solutions and partnerships that could help shape the future response, keeping the most vulnerable at the heart of it. Stressing on the need to collaborate and protect the lives and health of especially those in already fragile situations, Yahia Alibi, the head of the regional delegation of the ICRC in New Delhi, said, "COVID-19 and its aftershocks are deepening fragility, increasing humanitarian needs, accentuating the impact of violence, leading to further stigmatization, heightening instability, and reversing hard-won development gains."

In this new normal, the flexibility and agility of global actors to adapt their humanitarian response in close collaboration with local partners will play a key role. Prof Dabiru Sridhar Patnaik, Professor and Registrar at O.P. Jindal Global University, said, "Humanitarian assistance requires greater attention than before. Our mutual strengths and intellectual capital will help make a significant contribution to specific focus areas."

The panel moderated by Jyoti Malhotra, National & Strategic Affairs Editor at The Print, included Dr Yasmin Ali Haque, UNICEF Representative in India, Prof Mohan Kumar, Professor and Dean, Office of International Affairs & Global Initiatives, Jindal Global University, Dr Hugo Slim, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford and Dr Sreeram Sundar Chaulia, Professor and Dean, Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA).

The scale and impact of the crisis on the younger population can be understood by looking at the number of children out of school — which has gone up from six million before the pandemic to 300 million, as underlined by Dr Haque during the discussion. She also spoke extensively on the digital divide that has crept up as schools go online. Only eight per cent of households had a computer and internet connection pre-COVID and hardly 25% of the children worldwide have access to a digital device. How will we address these equity issues?

Dr Slim emphasized that the solutions for the future must be directed to fortify social security and must prioritize gender equality. Stressing on the importance of localization, Dr Slim felt the humanitarian sector needed to work towards finding a better balance between the global and local humanitarian response. Prof Mohan Kumar raised the important issue of the growing humanitarian needs and the shrinking funds available to meet those needs. He said, "The State has become extremely powerful post COVID because of its ability to intervene. COVID presents an excellent opportunity for international organisations to rise to the occasion and explore newer sources of funding." Also needing special attention are those countless people who are "practically stateless and are falling through the cracks", explained Dr Chaulia, as he stressed on their rising numbers. Dr Chaulia also emphasized the role India has been playing in providing humanitarian assistance to not only its neighbours, but also globally.

Discussions also took into account the impact the pandemic was likely to have on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Speakers agreed it is unlikely that any country will be able to meet the goals of 2030.

Central to the discussions was the crisis of multilateralism that was plaguing the humanitarian response. Speakers stressed and agreed on the importance of cooperation and multilateralism. The consensus was that if the world is to recover and if we are to minimise the fallout of this pandemic, we need solidarity and collaboration and the concerted actions of all players and stakeholders.