There are large unknowns about how long it will take to develop and
deploy effective vaccines, the duration and likelihood of repeat
outbreaks and lockdowns, and the eventual economic ramifications.
By: Era Dabla-Norris, Vitor Gaspar, and Kalpana Kochhar
Once COVID-19 abates, we will be reminded of how everything changed, of the
world that was. But the unfolding crisis contains profound lessons for the
future. When international delegates met at Bretton Woods in July 1944 to
devise a postwar world, the war was still far from over. Yet, recalling the
missed opportunities that had followed the previous world war, they
understood that the focus had to shift from ending the war to establishing
new foundations. Today’s global economy faces very different challenges, but
important parallels remain. Urgency and speed of action are as crucial as
the need to mobilize resources at real scale.
There are large unknowns about how long it will take to develop and deploy
effective vaccines, the duration and likelihood of repeat outbreaks and
lockdowns, and the eventual economic ramifications. Even so, it is possible
to identify some fixed points for an international post–COVID-19 order.
There is also an urgent need to
adapt and reform education systems and workforce training to
reduce skill mismatches for a technology-enabled workplace.
First, international collaboration on mounting effective public health
responses that rely on solid scientific consensus on disease causes and
mitigation is vital. Triumphs
of international cooperation prior to this pandemic centered on
public-private health initiatives that counted transparency, accountability,
and broad engagement as hallmarks. Examples include the Global Fund to Fight
Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and
Immunization, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation.
Governments would do well to reflect on what went wrong this time and try to
understand how funding for projects in the public interest can build on
existing initiatives. This could help drive research and development of
vaccines and diagnostics for future disease outbreaks.
Public health responses require a universal focus on pandemics. Emerging
market and developing economies, many of which are grossly ill-equipped to
combat the current health and economic shock, are increasingly on the front
lines of the spread of the disease. Chances of third and further waves of
pandemic outbreaks cannot be ruled out unless the virus is contained
everywhere. Calls for funding to mitigate the pandemic’s economic fallout in
poorer countries are being heeded. But attention to assuring that the
production and distribution of future vaccines and therapeutics worldwide
will be rapid, affordable, and universally available is equally paramount.
Realizing this goal will require that rules regarding pricing and
manufacturing are designed and enforced in ways that value international
collaboration and solidarity.
Second, the Great Lockdown has placed technology squarely at the forefront
of work, consumption, supply, interaction, and delivery. From
predicting and modeling outbreaks to community-driven contact tracing,
technology is being used widely to tackle the pandemic. Videoconferencing,
remote desktops, and new social platforms are powering remote work almost
overnight, a trend that will likely endure when lockdowns are lifted.
Digitalization of services—from telehealth to online education to cashless
transfers and emergency assistance to support the vulnerable—has been at the
center of country responses. The need for contactless payments is propelling
the shift from cash to digital payments, and digitalization of business
models and supply chains is reshaping commerce and delivery. Technology
could play a crucial role in creating new sources of growth, boosting
productivity, and helping workers and businesses transition and adjust to a
Harnessing the benefits of technology while leaving no one behind in the
post–COVID-19 digital world is key. Connectivity is a requisite for telework,
but more than 21 million people in the United States lack advanced broadband
internet access. About 60 percent of the global population, mostly women in
emerging market and developing economies, still has no computers or access
to the internet, and 250 million fewer women are online than men. Emerging
technologies have the potential to be a great equalizer, but without the
right infrastructure and governance in place, we could see the digital
divide intensify. As in public health, there is scope for innovative
public-private partnerships to bridge this divide and ensure that digital
inclusion represents economic inclusion.
There is also an urgent need to adapt and reform education systems and
workforce training to reduce skill mismatches for a technology-enabled
workplace. But not all jobs can be done from home. COVID-19 shows us more
clearly than ever before that, in the words of Martin Luther King, “all
labor has dignity.” The pandemic has also exposed the disconnect between
workers deemed essential in this fight—such as those working in health care,
eldercare, agriculture, and grocery stores—and their precarious benefits and
job security. Severe social protection deficits for these workers and the
countless others who work in the informal economy will need to be addressed.
Third, pandemics, like climate hazards, are a harsh reminder of the
relevance of natural phenomena and the need for ensuring long-term
Climate action and sustainability can gain renewed priority as fiscal
stimulus packages are deployed to jump-start the economic recovery.
Investments in climate-resilient infrastructure and the transition to a
lower-carbon future can drive significant near-term job creation and capital
formation while increasing economic and environmental resilience. These
investments could include building renewable-energy infrastructure and more
resilient roads and structures, expanding the capacity of the power grid,
retrofitting buildings, and developing and deploying technologies to
decarbonize heavy industries. Moving toward a lower-carbon economy is
daunting but imperative, and we must rise to this challenge collectively.
The post–COVID-19 order will be created. But the problems thrown into sharp
relief by the crisis remain. Poverty, rampant inequality, declining
biodiversity, environmental degradation, and scarcity of clean water still
need to be tackled. So do the long-standing inequities in our societies. How
we protect and lift our most vulnerable will be a test of our humanity.
There could be a silver lining. We have seen mobilization of resources for
public purposes on a scale witnessed only in times of war. But this current
war is being waged against a common enemy. The solidarity accumulated in
times of global lockdown and disease could be a valuable foundation on which