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Learning from the Lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic is the largest synchronized shock the world has experienced in generations. But this crisis will not be the last of its kind. We urgently need to learn as much as we can from the current experience and adapt international development practices and research accordingly.

CAMBRIDGE – As with so much else, international development has been severely affected by the coronavirus pandemic. How might we use these lessons to reshape the sector, rather than returning to the status quo?

For starters, the crisis has reminded us that nature still reigns supreme, and it should spur us to step up efforts to mitigate and adapt to other systemic threats, particularly climate change, which will continue to be the biggest threat to development. According to the Climate Impact Lab, global warming could lead to as many as 1.5 million excess deaths per year in India by 2100, rivaling the toll of all infectious diseases combined. In addition to applying our current scientific knowledge to existing problems – from improving environmental auditing to deploying flood-resistant varieties of rice – we need to accelerate innovations that reduce carbon dioxide emissions and pollution, help communities adapt to climate change, and provide access to clean energy. And, most important, we must pilot and evaluate new initiatives, and scale those with the biggest impact.

The pandemic has also taught us that public health is about more than physical illnesses. For many people – particularly in developing countries – staying home simply isn’t a safe option. Domestic violence, including both physical and emotional abuse, is expected to rise sharply as a result of lockdowns. Extended periods of isolation could exacerbate anxiety, depression, and other related mental health conditions. And those battling addictions are struggling to get the support they need. Rather than hoping these problems will simply disappear whenever the lockdowns are lifted (they won’t), we should acknowledge that mental health has long been a neglected issue in policy debates.