COVID-19 today: Five ways the UN is fighting the pandemic and looking beyond it

A young adolescent girl wearing a yellow headdress and black mask looks strikingly at the camera.
Photo: UNICEF Ethiopia/2020/Mulugeta Ayene

UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the COVID-19 pandemic as the greatest global crisis since World War II.  

In response, UN teams around the world have marshalled forces not only to stop the spread of the disease, but to deal with its many secondary effects—from massive job losses to increases in gender-based violence.   

Here are five ways the UN is combating the pandemic.  

1. Informing and combatting misinformation

“The fight against COVID-19 is largely a communications battle: to change habits, to wash hands, to stay at home, to keep social distancing, to be kind, stay calm and be connected,” said Siddharth Chatterjee in March 2020, when he was the UN Resident Coordinator (RC) in Kenya. (He has since become the RC in China.)  

In China, the UN team supported national and local efforts in sharing information on COVID-19 through offline and online media, including videos that viewed over 1 billion times. The team also found innovative ways to support the response through artificial intelligence, mobile phones and drones

Shows youth handling a robot. Robots are used in many hospitals to deliver food, medicine and other supplies; to disinfect hospitals and other public areas to check patients’ temperatures and to answer common questions.

Photo: UNDP China

This battle against the pandemic is also a battle against misinformation or “infodemic”, as the World Health Organization puts it. All hands are on deck to share science-based information, including through the global UN’s Verified initiative, boosting partnerships for vaccine safety and equity.

In Uzbekistan, WHO, UNFPA and UNICEF trained more than 30 communications professionals from the government and other sectors on risk communications.  

In Latin America and the Caribbean UN teams supported the national communications strategy to address the pandemic in Ecuador and Costa Rica, while dozens UN staff were loaned to governments in five regions to boost crisis communications efforts.

2. Ensuring the safety of women and girls 

According to the UN Secretary-General’s April 2020 brief on the impact of COVID-19 on women, there was an increase of over 25% in the reported number cases of violence against women, as they were forced into lockdown with their abusers, and supportive services have been disrupted.  

To protect the safety and security of women and girls, UN entities worldwide are working with governments and other partners.

In India, UN Women is supporting “Jugnu Clubs,” women’s self-empowerment groups that provide shelter and other assistance to those fleeing gender-based violence. UNFPA, meanwhile, is backing a network of one-stop centres, which help women facing violence. 

One of the healthcare workers trained to counsel speaks with clients at their office.

Caption: UNFPA trains health care workers and staff of one-stop centres on crisis counselling and other services.

Photo: UN Women

In Kenya, a hotline for survivors of gender-based violence saw its call volume multiply over 12 times in the early months of the burgeoning coronavirus crisis. The hotline, supported by UN Women and UNFPA, connects survivors with services.  

In Argentina and Guatemala, through the EU-UN backed Spotlight Initiative, UN Women has supported national and local authorities to ensure continued services to survivors of domestic violence.

3. Supporting children’s education  

As of the middle of 2020, more than 87 per cent of students enrolled in school or university worldwide were out of school. At around the same time, UNESCO reported that nearly 60.2 million teachers were no longer in the classroom.  

In the early months of 2020, as COVID-19 spread rapidly around the world, the UN supported governments in adapting education to the strictures of the pandemic. In Zimbabwe, for example, the UN helped the Government prepare for the switch to home-schooling. 

These efforts extended to fulfill the needs of the most vulnerable. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, UNICEF and partners organized online classes available for migrants and refugees in the temporary reception centres. 

Three young female students participate in an online class.

Caption: Many classes for kids at migrant and refugee reception centres—such as this one in Sedra—have gone online.

Photo: UNICEF and IOM Bosnia and Herzegovina

As the COVID-19 crisis deepened, the UN system continued to stand with countries to meet the educational needs of children. In Mongolia, a joint project by UNICEF, UNFPA and UNESCO addressed the immediate needs for online learning content, and, in the longer term, is helping education policy in Mongolia adapting it to remote and online learning.   

4. Sharing vaccines with the world  

In April 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission and France launched the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, which brought together people from all sectors to provide innovative and equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.  

COVAX is the name of the mechanism being used to support research, development and manufacture of a wide range of COVID-19 vaccine candidates and negotiate their pricing. COVAX is coordinated by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the WHO.  

Photo shows a warehouse staff member proudly unloading boxes of vaccines from a truck.

Caption: On Friday 26 February 2021, a shipment of COVAX COVID-19 vaccines are offloaded at a UNICEF -supported warehouse in Abidjan

Photo: UNICEF/Miléquêm Diarassouba

With multiple vaccines emerging, COVAX is the only effort to ensure that people in all corners of the world will get access to COVID-19 vaccines once available, no matter how much or how little money they have.  

5. Thinking past the pandemic 

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact. The UNDP’s Human Development Index forecasted a decline in 2020 — the first time since the Index was created. And yet, dire as the situation is, there will be a world after the pandemic.  

That’s why, even as the UN responds to the many facets of COVID-19, it is looking beyond the crisis to ensure that countries are equipped to fulfil the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.  

Not least of all, the UN’s Joint SDG Fund committed an initial US $100 million to reinforce the SDG financing architecture in developing countries and catalyze investments to advance the SDGs.  

A COVID-19 data portal launched in 2020 helps track countries’ response to the pandemic, and how UN Country Teams (UNCTs) support governments in those responses. Such data helps governments during the pandemic and as their countries emerge from the crisis and return to dealing with long-term needs.  

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is working with other UN agencies and partners to transform food systems so that they meet the nutritional needs of all people. “COVID-19 has shocked and wounded the food system,” says Jong-Jin Kim, FAO’s Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific. “We have the opportunity to build back healthier even as we support those who have borne the brunt.”  

A young woman holds a child in her lap while she feeds him from a bowl.

Caption: A child with his mother from Village Khangrah, Muzuffragrah District, Punjab in Pakistan.

Photo: UNICEF/Giacomo Pirozzi

In January of this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said,

“2021 must be the year to change gear and put the world on track. We need to move from death to health; from disaster to reconstruction; from despair to hope; from business as usual to transformation. It is possible. So we must make it happen. Together.” 


Produced by the Development Coordination Office. Written by Paul VanDeCarr. 

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