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We are all struggling to come to terms with the scale, severity and global reach of the Coronavirus pandemic. 

At this critical juncture, I wanted to briefly set out how Save the Children is responding to what is the gravest humanitarian challenge in our organisation’s history.

When we were founded 100 years ago, countries around the world were dealing with the Spanish influenza. Today, we are dealing with a global pandemic that could bring in its train a Great Depression. That combination of a health crisis and economic downturn creates perfect storm conditions for what could be a great reversal in human development.

It seems like just a few weeks ago we were talking about the 2020s as the decade of delivery for the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. Our challenge now is to ensure that we do not drift into a lost decade that witnesses an unrolling of the extraordinary gains of the past three decades.

I’m incredibly proud of the way the Save the Children movement has come together to respond to the crisis 

In Ethiopia we are working with the government to relay Covid-19 education messages through 3,500 churches and mosques across the country. In Somalia, where we are the biggest health and nutrition provider, we are supporting the training of health workers. Earlier this week our Country Director in Afghanistan wrote to me about his team’s efforts to expand the reach of our mobile health clinics. But he also reminded me that the country lacks even the most basic capabilities for responding to Covid-19.

None of us are under any illusion about the mismatch between need and provision – and it’s because of that mismatch that Save the Children has launched its biggest ever global appeal. The $100m Protect a Generation appeal focuses on community health, safety nets, and education for children out of school because of lockdowns. Even in these toughest of times, the public is responding with extraordinary generosity, as are our friends and partners.

There is no doubt in my mind that we can – and must – make a difference. 

In the UK, the impact of Covid-19 on the NHS, poverty, and the poorest children is a reminder of just how devastating the pandemic is, even in the richest of countries. That’s why we have put in place an emergency grants programme aimed to reach vulnerable families by providing support with bills and buying food, toys and furniture. Every family will also receive a pack of resources designed by our early learning specialists; and we’ve set up a Virtual Den and a #SaveWithStories project.

Around the world, the poorest countries and emerging markets face threats of an even greater order of magnitude. Last month, I wrote pieces for the Financial Times and Project Syndicate expressing concern about the threats facing sub-Saharan Africa. At the time, very few countries reported community transmission. Today, many countries are drifting towards an exponential growth phase.

I’ve been reflecting on some of my field visits with Save the Children. Last year I was in Jigawa, north-western Nigeria, where I visited a hospital that was the main referral facility for a population of over 1 million people. On a 30-bed paediatric ward for children needing intensive care, there were just two oxygen concentrators. The doctors told me they regularly made life-and-death decisions over which children would get access to oxygen. How will that hospital fare in the event Nigeria’s impressive attempts to contain Covid-19 fail?

For the poorest countries, economic recession may prove to be more deadly than Covid-19. Based on the World Bank’s most recent growth projections, our researchers at Save the Children estimate that 30-50 million children could be drawn into poverty, with potentially devastating consequences for malnutrition, child survival and education. Unlike rich countries, who have torn up the fiscal and monetary policy rule books, governments in the poorest countries have neither the fiscal space nor the borrowing capacity to respond.

Ultimately, this is a battle that can only be won if the international community comes together 

We have been making the case for a suspension of debt servicing in the poorest countries to help finance the Covid-19 response. The good news is that the G20 has committed to act on this front. The bad news: coverage and delivery remain uncertain. It is now critical that governments move towards a global action plan spanning immediate health system strengthening – the provision of protective equipment, the development and delivery of vaccines, and health worker training – and economic recovery.

Coronavirus doesn’t carry a passport, nor is it deterred by populist rhetoric on the virtues of walls and the demonisation of others. If we needed a reminder that international cooperation and multilateralism are the key to managing shared risks, this is it.

Benjamin Franklin once said that ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. Surely that’s a great lesson to learn from this awful pandemic, and not just in health. Preventing the poverty and malnutrition now facing vulnerable people around the world will be far better, and more cost-effective, than waiting to respond with cures.

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