COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world, says ISS researcher Dorothea Hilhorst, who recently participated in a webinar organized by Humanitarian Knowledge Exchange platform Kuno to reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled and what could be done differently. Here’s what she had to say.

Covid Checks in IndiaCOVID-19 is sweeping the globe and widely triggers top-down and centralised emergency measures. I don’t recall another crisis that has created such a response, even though the actual numbers of people affected have been very modest compared to many of the other crises we have in this world, including the lack of access to clean water, resource competition in mining areas, conflict and refugee problems, and climate change. In the beginning, I often found myself thinking if only the world would muster the courage to also address these other crises, and give them more priority than short-term economic gain.

However, it is also clear that there are strong limitations to the bold and robust responses of top-down emergency management. Firstly, I really resent how we seem to conflate the hazard of COVID-19 with subsequent risks. Yes, COVID-19 is a nasty and infectious virus. But it is not a virus that dictates that it should lead to widespread food shortages or increased marginalisation of the poor and vulnerable populations. These are spillover crises that relate to but are not directly caused by the virus.

These spillover crises are not just happening, they are let be by policy. When we signal the risk of food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19, I see agencies jumping to raising funds and stockpiling to feed the world. However, why don’t we talk about preventing this crisis? Why not focus on diplomacy to continue food exports from surplus-producing countries? Why not ensure that markets stay open and continue to function? Why not give peasants free range to go to their fields (at distance from other human beings) instead of locking them down in their houses?

Secondly, we have to be really aware about the many instances where governments have instrumentalised COVID-19 for other purposes, such as to curb the freedoms of civil society, to silence the media, or to undermine political opponents. Hungary is a case in point, where the government, under the pretext of misinformation about COVID-19, has closed critical media outlets. Authorities in many areas are seen to instrumentalise COVID-19 to increase surveillance and control, at the detriment of human rights and civil society, with rumours increasing the mistrust between people and their state.

Thirdly, while there is no doubt that top-down policies and expert knowledge is required to address the crisis, there are also indications about the limitations of this approach. Top-down approaches may ignore, stifle, or expire local coping capacities, social networks, and small-scale formal and informal institutions. Based on previous experiences and research, this may have grave consequences and render the COVID-19 response counter-productive:

  1. Local institutions are people’s first and very often only line of defence against crises. Where top-down policies don’t reach out to communities to provide services and when people cannot rely on local institutions, they become increasingly vulnerable. Why close schools instead of mobilising teachers to help spread messages about personal hygiene in relation to COVID-19?
  2. In areas where state-society relations are already characterised by mistrust before the crisis, there is a high risk that people will not believe the messages about COVID-19 coming from the authorities and will try to circumvent policies aiming to prevent the spread of the virus. A notorious example was found when the Ebola pandemic erupted in Sierra Leone: people sometimes hid patients to avoid their hospitalisation.
  3. One-sided top-down policies can contribute to spillover crises at the local level, including crises of livelihoods and food security. This can lead to adverse coping mechanisms that actually increase the risks of COVID-19. There are signals that some women in the Eastern DRC who are prohibited to cross the border with Rwanda for their petty trade now resort to transactional sex to feed their families.

Let’s stay alert, or as we say nowadays, let us be ‘woke’ about these consequences of responding to COVID-19. The virus is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world. Top-down measures need to be linked up with bottom-up initiatives and coping mechanisms to effectively deal with the crisis.

Hilhorst’s discussion was part of a webinar titled ‘How COVID empowers local civil society organizations’. Other speakers included Hero Anwar, Program Director at REACH Iraq; Gloria Modong, Executive Director, Titi Foundation South Sudan, and Deputy Chair, NGO Forum South Sudan; and Feliciano Reyna, Executive Director and founder of Accíon Solidaria in Venezuela and representative of Civilis.

The entire webinar can be (re-)watched here: https://www.kuno-platform.nl/events/kuno-covid-cafe-how-covid-empowers-local-civil-society-organizations-in-the-south/

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

Thea Hilhorst

About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

Title Image Credit: Gwydion M. Williams on Flickr

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1 Comment
  • aart van der heide
    June 17, 2020

    Dear Prof. Hilhorst. Nice words you speak and certainly you as a professor with a lot of field experience I have to inform you that my own experience in many humanitarian situations in Africa taught me that besides the poor detection systems many extremely poor people will be infected without knowing that. Although aid programmes that come too late my experience – in Angola and Mali – is that existing networks SHOULD be used. We use it but are realizing that what religious people say there: it’s in God’s hands. Sad conclusion but knowing that many academic organizations also can do nothing.