COVID-19 will change our lives. And our way of working.

by Gerd Trogemann, Manager of UNDP’s Istanbul Regional Hub, and Lejla Sadiku, Innovation Specialist for UNDP Eurasia

A highly-instagrammed street in Istanbul stands shuttered and empty.

In ”The Plague”, Camus asks if suffering can exist not in individuals but as a shared experience in the public. Crisis, he writes, upends existing social order and induces paradigm shifts.

This pandemic is a global paradigm shift . A shift that impacts all aspects of societies globally and all dimensions of sustainable development, a shift that exposes systemic interconnectedness for everyone to see and that bursts silos and boundaries — sectoral, institutional or even national. Much like climate change.

But this pandemic brings an immediate, direct and personal sense of urgency to everyone.

With the lions’ share of our efforts focused on how we respond, UNDP needs to keep an eye on the long-term impacts of this pandemic and what it could mean for sustainable development going forward.

COVID-19 in itself may be exceptional and unprecedented. But the occurrence of a global pandemic is not unpredictable. Our resistance to antibiotics is growing and human-wildlife crossovers are expanding. The melting of glaciers at the north pole is likely to release millions of new bacteria that we have never been exposed to.

We find ourselves at a delicate moment in the anthropocene. Our capacities, and that of our public institutions, to address civilization-scaled challenges seem weak and uncoordinated. Nation states have been systematically weakened in parts of the world and core public functions privatized over the last decades. This is also true in our region, with essential health services, for example, being pushed into the hands of private providers; public trust deteriorating over the years; and nationalism, data secrecy and distrust of science on the rise.

Devastating as it is already now, the prolonged crisis is likely to induce cascading effects — requiring us to recode our long-held preferences in favor of new models of mitigation, adaptation and resilience. If this crisis does takes the pathway currently expected, implications will be structural and profound, and our known and tested recovery models may not work.

Value chains are complex and — as everyone can now see — very vulnerable. The pressures on the health systems are increasing, states are trying to step up. Private and personal information is likely to be shared with governments without prior consent. The OECD has downgraded its growth forecasts and global stock markets are aching. Only the planet is breathing better.

A European Space Agency satellite image showing levels of nitrogen dioxide over Italy (left) and China (right).

These developments will also have long term implications. The so far gradual move of our work, education and socialization into the digital space is already seeing a major acceleration and may change core aspects of our identities fundamentally: how we work, how we learn and how we engage. Existing public infrastructure is likely to come under pressure.

The longer the pandemic continues, new ways of operating will emerge, ultimately influencing the use of public buildings and spaces, libraries, universities and schools. While the digital uptake in our region is already high with many public services increasingly provided online, the pandemic will accelerate the speed at which digital transformation (and not only optimization) of our societies takes place.

The role of trust and traceability is likely to increase: shorter and traceable value-chains, especially for food and medicines; the expansion of 3D printing, as a form of decentralized and faster production, and cashless economies throughout different industries may gain traction. At the same time, the future of the sharing economy and the uptake on subscription models looks uncertain. Economic production is likely to decentralize and a stronger push for ‘reshoring’ of production will emerge, impacting economies that are dependent on manufacturing.

Pandemics don’t discriminate between ‘imaginary communities’. Everyone can and might be affected regardless of class, race or nationality. However, access to care and the experience of being isolated or sick is right now dependent on location, wealth, protections and in some cases, age. The pandemic has sparked new waves of racism, xenophobia and isolationism. This new reality will push for the creation of new forms of social protection, but also an expectation for a stronger public sector.

This new reality forces us to think how we can develop a capability that addresses emergent issues in spaces of high uncertainty and what system shifts need to take place. There are two key insights that we see emerging:

1) Addressing a risk of this velocity and nature (global & invisible) requires international collaboration, transparency and a seamless flow of information to accelerate responses. Having the infrastructure to accelerate responses on transnational issues is essential for preparedness and resilience. Experimenting across borders with new technologies, catching early signals of change, identifying new vulnerabilities in the system and society — whether it means maintaining the vitality of SMEs or addressing loneliness. This also requires developing an R&D capability and a communication infrastructure to help us learn and exchange in real time about patterns and changing behaviors to allow us to respond faster as the effects emerge.

2) Dynamic portfolios are needed to address the short term & long term effects of the pandemic, to start mapping out the different effects and how they are interconnected, as well as how our assets and capabilities can be deployed and recalibrated in conditions like this. This overall frame can help drive decisions on how we can support governments and societies in transitioning to this new reality. This process helps us determine how we can work with our partners to reimagine what success looks like in times of high uncertainty, and how to coherently and iteratively manage cascading effects on vulnerability, climate and economy.

This pandemic has sent shockwaves felt across the globe in record time. Ensuring that these structural shifts do not exacerbate inequalities and inequity will require dynamic management, continuous flow of information and learning, and collaboration.

It can — and should — produce a paradigm shift towards more and better international cooperation and uncontested coordination, rather than the isolationism we are currently seeing. It could produce a shift of mindsets and attitudes at all levels, for which the Agenda 2030 and SDGs have called for with little success, at least until now.

To return to Camus: “What we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.”

With thanks to Indy Johar, Dark Matter Labs, & Luca Gatti, CHORA Foundation for their thoughts, ideas and review.

If you’re interested in UNDP’s work around innovation, check out our publication Innovation in the age of the SDGs



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