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12.18.2020

COVID-19 Showed How Interconnected We Are. To Move Forward, We Must Embrace It.

After an unprecedented year, what lessons will we carry with us into 2021?

By Rabih Torbay

Among the many lessons to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps the most enduring will be how interconnected it showed the world to be — how a virus that began in a single city could touch all of us in a matter of moments.

No one has been left unaffected: all of us know someone who has had the virus, or have seen first-hand the tragic toll it can take. This is the same shared experience we felt during the inspiring movements for racial equality following the death of George Floyd. These events remind us that no one can live in a bubble — that what happens anywhere affects all of us, everywhere.

If we want to rebuild from this pandemic and move forward into a stronger, more equitable world, we cannot forget that lesson. As vaccines begin entering the market and we start to imagine a future beyond this pandemic, that interconnectedness — and the empathy it can create — will be essential to our ability to move forward.

woman sitting down and holding a newborn
Meet Musu, 40, and her newborn, yet-to-be-named baby girl. Musu has a history of giving birth to small babies, but this is the first of her children to be treated with Kangaroo Mother Care. Photo by James Buck for Project HOPE, 2019.

After a hurricane or other major disaster, the focus always turns to rebuilding. If you see something destroyed, you want to build it back better so the next time it can sustain a similar disaster. That is where we find ourselves now — as an organization, who must use the lessons of 2020 to make us even better in 2021 — but also as a people. We have a chance to build a more resilient world. But we have to build it together.

Our tendency when facing a crisis is to focus on the emergency, and rightly so. But in solving what’s urgent, we can’t forget what’s important: the state of the world’s health and the Sustainable Development Goals that were set for us to meet. Progress depends on us addressing both.

We have a chance to build a more resilient world. But we have to build it together.

The cost of COVID-19 means that we are going to see significant reversals of much of the progress we’ve built over previous decades. Maternal and infant mortality may increase by as much as one-third in developing countries, with hundreds of thousands of additional newborn deaths. Malaria, which claims hundreds of thousands of lives every year, is likely to kill even more people this year. The health equity gap is worsening, as is our mental health crisis.

Many of the world’s most devastating crises, meanwhile, have been forgotten. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen has continued to deteriorate, with famine levels of food insecurity, more disease, more poverty, and less humanitarian assistance going into the country. Over 5 million people have fled Venezuela, more than the populations of Los Angeles and San Francisco combined. Lebanon continues to spiral into crisis, with the tragic August explosion exacerbating what was already a desperate situation.

It is incumbent on us as a global community, and as humanitarians, to marshal our resources for the common cause of solving these crises, reversing these losses, and reinstituting trust in science so we are prepared for the next pandemic. Pandemics don’t hold to seasons like hurricanes: though it may seem unfathomable, the next one could hit at any minute, and could be even deadlier. If we do not learn from this year by investing in our local health care workers and strengthening our local health systems, then we will end up right back where we are now, and the tragic lessons from this year will have been learned in vain.

Doctor looks into eye of young boy as mother holds him
The lack of health care workers in Yemen has exacerbated the humanitarian emergency, forcing millions of people to go without the care they need. Photo courtesy MedGlobal, photographer Marc Roussel, 2019.

Fortunately, this year has shown us the power of human resiliency and what we can accomplish when we work together for a common goal. I am incredibly proud of our teams in the U.S. and around the world, who have worked tirelessly throughout the year to build new partnerships and work hand-in-hand with local communities to ensure that our critical work has been able to continue. I am also proud of the amazing work of Health Affairs, which continues to be a leading voice for science and truth.

The challenges of this year have also shown us the transformative impact of technology, especially when it comes to training health care workers. For us at Project HOPE, we will have to continue to be innovative in our thinking, our approach, and our delivery. We must expand our partnerships with academic institutions, corporations, foundations, and governments to take our work further and build on our successes, including virtual trainings that have reached over 83,000 frontline personnel this year.

We must also continue to work toward localizing aid by building the capacity of local and regional organizations, establishing new ones, and training local health workers. They are the ones who will be on the front lines of the next pandemic, who will respond to the next disaster, and who will be called upon to undertake our greatest problems like maternal and infant mortality. We must empower and invest in these local responders, reinstitute trust in science rather than rumors, and promote facts over false information.

When this pandemic has passed, we will have a choice. We can either go back to the way things were, or accept that we must do better. We can live in isolation, looking only after our own interests, or work together to solve these global problems.

If we do that — if we work together as a global community to ensure that every country is prepared for a pandemic, and that our local health care workers are equipped to tackle crises like TB, HIV, maternal mortality, and disaster — then we will build a stronger, more equitable system prepared to handle the next crisis that will test it.

Rabih Torbay is president and CEO of Project HOPE.

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