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The Optimist

Group of schoolchildren in uniform. Photo: © Diego F, Dussán/World Bank
Without rapid, decisive, and coordinated action, COVID-19 threatens to pose a huge setback to hard-won gains in human capital. Photo: © Diego F, Dussán/World Bank

Innovation and sound policies are critical to protect people during the crisis

This piece was originally published on World Bank Blogs on June 16, 2020.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) has unleashed a global health emergency and an unprecedented economic crisis. In addition to the loss of life and income, the pandemic threatens human capital, as many people are out of work, essential services disrupted, food supplies affected, and schools closed.

Without rapid, decisive, and coordinated action, the crisis threatens to pose a huge setback to hard-won gains in human capital. For example, if essential health services are reduced by around 45% for 6 months, that is proportionately similar to the impact of the ebola pandemic, it could result in over a million child deaths and over 50,000 additional maternal deaths in low- and middle-income countries.

A grim picture is also emerging for losses to learning. The latest research shows that when schools are closed for 4 months, COVID-19 may mean the long-term loss of half a year of schooling, adjusted for quality. This brings the average learning that students in developing countries achieve in their lifetime to less than 7.5 years, causing future productivity losses with lasting consequences.

For women and girls, who tend to bear the brunt of care work and household chores, the pandemic may exacerbate gender-based violence as well as the prevalence of child marriage and adolescent pregnancy—which further reduce their opportunity for learning and economic empowerment.

These profound impacts of the crisis underscore the urgency of ensuring continuity and universal coverage of essential services, including health, water, nutrition, early child development, learning, adaptive social safety nets, and community engagement, so that countries can quickly and effectively mitigate the effects of the shock, while laying the groundwork for future resilience.

Looking forward, our new report shows that the crisis provides an opportunity to build back stronger systems for people and economies, by reprioritizing policies, strengthening institutions, and facilitating behavioral change for more flexible shock response, resilience and quality in service delivery, and economic inclusion.


To enrich understanding of what works, we set out to explore effective and innovative approaches at our recent forum. Leaders from Bangladesh, Estonia, Ireland, Peru, and Sierra Leone shared experiences that show promise in terms of effectiveness and innovation in response to the multi-faceted impacts of the crisis. A few clear themes emerged:


1. Containing the pandemic may require painful measures, but the crisis also presents an opportunity for leaps forward in services to protect, build and employ human capital, such as:

• Improving financial and digital inclusion—examples include digital cash payments to reach households in Peru, taking a “mobile first” approach in Sierra Leone, mobile financial accounts in Bangladesh, and the foundations for a digital society in Estonia and elsewhere

• Investing in the next generation by expanding programs and support for child development, learning, health, and psychosocial services

• Innovating through both old and new technologies to improve service delivery, such as providing distance learning through the internet, as well as through radio programs as in Sierra Leone, under the principle of inclusion for all students.


2. Urgent measures to protect people and economies need to align with long-term development and human capital objectives.

• Protecting human capital for the long term requires urgent measures, and countries, such as Bangladesh, Peru, and Sierra Leone, are prioritizing continued learning throughout the crisis.

• Policies and programs must adapt to improve access and quality of services in the crisis and for the future, as also seen through community service delivery and microfinance in Bangladesh.


3. Inclusive and empathetic leadership, communication, and good governance can help manage the crisis and recovery.


4. Taking a whole-of-society approach to build citizens’ trust and ensure essential service delivery.


5. Prioritizing spending within a limited fiscal space and undertaking reforms under the key guiding principles of transparency, coherence, and broad-based inclusion.


The examples are just a snapshot of the many innovations that are taking place in countries across the globe as they respond to the pandemic. These innovations often arise locally, in public-private partnerships and through the involvement of citizens and communities.

Countries need stronger and more resilient systems, and the road to recovery will be long and challenging. Fiscal space will be limited and the cost of inaction detrimental for future prosperity. The often difficult structural and governance reforms that countries have been considering for years, have now become vital. They have also become more feasible. When governments gain citizens’ trust through their response to the pandemic, countries will have a unique window for reforms. The international community must redouble effort in supporting such reforms and making smart investments in human capital.

About the Authors

Annette Dixon
Annette Dixon is the World Bank vice president for Human Resources and former vice president of Human Development.

Hana Brixi
Hana Brixi is the World Bank head of the Human Capital Project.

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