Learning to Live with the Pandemic, but Not Its Terrible Impact

Iqbal Dhaliwal and Ingrid Lustig

Communities around the world continue to battle the terrible impact of the COVID-19 pandemic beyond its immediate health effects; many are suffering from financial insecurity, losses in educational outcomes and enrollment, and decline in mental and preventative health. And while COVID-19 may have pushed climate change out of the headlines for the past few years, almost everyone across the globe is directly experiencing its effects. These, and more, are issues of renewed importance that demand the attention of philanthropists and policymakers.

Prior to the pandemic, the global community had made significant progress toward ending poverty. Now, we’re moving in the opposite direction. Urgent action is needed to reverse this trend and ensure that the progress of recent decades continues to be sustained at scale. At the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a research center founded at MIT, our network of researchers, country staff, and local partners have continued this fight by collecting data and evaluating programs to understand what works and what doesn’t in the recovery from COVID-19. We additionally work to apply evidence in pandemic response programs and policies.

What has stayed the same: The importance of unrestricted support for agile response

In 2019, we published a blog post describing three key lessons for philanthropists seeking to support the practice of evidence-driven decision making: 1) Provide core support for evidence-to-policy catalysts, 2) ensure funds are easily accessible and predictable to attract interest in your priority areas, and 3) invest in cross-cutting initiatives with governments that go beyond sector boundaries, given that they are still the largest player in development and social policy. Throughout the pandemic, these lessons have been underlined time and time again.

Core support for J-PAL, for example, ensured that we could continue our operations and leverage existing evidence to help policymakers respond to this crisis. We released an evidence review and meta-analysis of tutoring programs to emphasize their effectiveness in helping kids catch-up in school, reflected on decades of research about how to increase immunization coverage to provide insight on expanding COVID-19 vaccination, and summarized evidence-based approaches to address an increase in gender-based violence.

In Chile, our LAC Scientific Director, Francisco Gallego, worked with the Minister of Finance on how to best provide economic support to vulnerable households during the pandemic. The government of Chile designed and implemented a cash transfer program for informally employed workers that reached more than three million people.

And as the world clamored for more information about the widespread effects of the pandemic, J-PAL funded research that provided key information about on-the-ground realities to help governments roll out responses related to inequalities in education in Italy, vaccine knowledge in the United States, and preventive behaviors and symptoms reporting in India.

What has changed: Tackling emerging issues of concern 

The ravages of COVID-19 over the last two years have uncovered new and deepened sectoral challenges that must be prioritized by the philanthropic community.

Providing a lifeline to families in need

Worldwide, we have seen a need for more robust and responsive social protection services, such as cash transfers. While advanced economies managed to send emergency funds directly to their citizens’ bank accounts during the pandemic, many developing countries realized that they could not do the same as they could not identify their poorest, and, even if they could, they did not have access to financial services. Supporting governments and companies, like mobile-phone providers, to share their administrative data is an effective way to ensure that governments can identify vulnerable citizens, as J-PAL researchers did in Togo.

Keeping children in school

As students endured school closings, transitioned to online learning, and navigated massive distractions at home, it became clear that online learning is not a universally viable solution, particularly for students who lack internet access, have special needs, or share one device among many family members. To help kids catch up, research shows that intensive, repeated “learning camps” in which students are grouped at their current learning level (rather than by age or grade), as well as tutoring programs led by teachers during school hours, can be incredibly helpful.

However, as schools open again, we should also consider the precariousness of enrollment trends; during the pandemic, more than 1.6 billion children were out of school for extended periods of time and some may drop-out completely. Massive efforts will be needed to ensure that girls, students in remote areas, and other vulnerable groups return to school.

Preserving physical and mental health

Preventive health services have been disrupted across the globe, and we have lost progress in areas such as childhood immunization, contraceptive use, and treatment of non-communicable diseases. J-PAL has collated lessons for increasing uptake of healthy behaviors from past research, including designing information campaigns with well-connected community members, leveraging cash transfers, and building trust in health systems, to inform policy response. The more hidden health impacts of the pandemic have been declining mental health and a rise in domestic violence, which worsened as a result of isolation and reduced services. These issues also need our attention.

Preventing the spread of misinformation

Misinformation magnified on social media has emerged as a key barrier to evidence-informed decision making by households. There is little rigorous research to guide what approaches are most effective. J-PAL is gearing to launch a new research and policy initiative on misinformation and “fake news” in scientific domains like healthcare as well as in terms of elections and democracy.

Nature reigns supreme

This pandemic has reminded us of the power of nature in our lives, and climate change is, quite literally, a tsunami on our shores. While we are directly affected by, and therefore well aware, of the threat of floods, fires, and droughts caused by climate change, these effects disproportionately harm people living in poverty who often have fewer resources for adaptation. Climate change also has the potential to reverse decades of progress in poverty alleviation as poor neighborhoods become uninhabitable and vulnerable schools bake in an extended summer. It is critical to integrate climate change in all sector work by paying attention to the nexus of climate change and poverty alleviation.

Where do we go from here?

From vaccinations to cash transfers to mask mandates, it is clear that there is no substitute for government when it comes to reaching citizens. Partnerships with governments will be increasingly important if we are to tackle the pandemic and truly face climate change head-on. That is why in addition to working with non-profits and the private sector, we are partnering with governments to adapt, pilot, and scale evidence-informed policies through our Innovation in Government Initiative (IGI). With scale in mind, J-PAL helps governments identify the evidence that is right for their context, design pilot programs that draw on this evidence, and build systems for data-enabled program delivery and monitoring.

Much as we would all like to see the end of this pandemic, unfortunately it has become clear that ending it will be neither quick nor easy, if even possible. Instead, we need to learn to live with the possibility of COVID-19 becoming endemic. But that does not mean that we need to live with its impact – we have an opportunity to instead build back better by adapting and scaling evidence-informed policy.

Iqbal Dhaliwal is the global executive director of J-PAL. Follow Iqbal on Twitter at @iqbaldhali and follow J-PAL at @JPAL.

Ingrid Lustig is the senior development associate at J-PAL Global.

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