Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic: Insights from IDRC research partners
In the two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11, 2020, much has been learned about how best to address the wide-ranging impact of COVID-19, including how to alleviate its devastating toll on lives and livelihoods. At the same time, the pandemic has reversed decades of progress in areas such as gender equality, health and education.
Never in our lifetime has quality research, sound evidence and effective policymaking been so critical to the immediate and long-term well-being of the global community. IDRC is working with partners worldwide to support initiatives that generate high-quality, policy-relevant research to help inform a sustainable recovery that benefits everyone, everywhere.
In the lead-up to the pandemic’s second anniversary, IDRC asked some of our research partners to share their insights on what we’ve learned so far, as well as their views on what work still needs to be done.
From heads of organizations to principal investigators and team members involved in IDRC-supported research, their responses highlight a variety of pandemic-related issues and underscore the importance of sound evidence to support a just and equal recovery.
Gender inequalities worsening amid pandemic
Several research partners shared their views on how women have been disproportionally impacted by the pandemic, reinforcing historical inequalities and gender-based vulnerabilities.
“Recovery connotes a ‘return to.’ However, for women workers at the margins, they need a ‘moving from,’ which demands a reorganization of patriarchal relations through concrete measures for change at legal, institutional and socio-technical levels,” said Payal Arora. She is the co-founder of FemLab, an IDRC-supported partner that is working with garment workers in India and Bangladesh to document how digital platforms can enhance the voice of women workers in a digital era.
The need to address women’s added burden of unpaid care work, such as cooking, cleaning and childcare, was also raised. “Care work must be visible and central in recovery policies,” said Andrea Ordóñez, director of Southern Voice and part of research to identify socioeconomic pandemic responses that promote gender equality in Latin America as well as in Bangladesh, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.
Ordóñez stressed that governments needed to invest in services that respond to household care needs, particularly supporting women, adding that “actions to change social norms and redistribute the care activities more equally within the household are essential.”
Tackling exclusion of marginalized groups
In addition to the gender dimension, some research partners offered their perspectives on how other marginalized groups — such as informal workers and members of LGBTQ+ and Indigenous communities — have been affected by the pandemic but are often left out of recovery interventions.
“Informal workers are earning less than before the pandemic,” said Sally Roever, international coordinator with Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, which is carrying out a study on informal workers and the pandemic in 11 cities. “They are in debt and quietly going hungry.”
Roever called on governments to chart a new way forward, with employment strategies that deliver protections for all workers and compel capital to do its part. “The old solutions are not working,” she stated.
The need to abandon a business-as-usual approach was echoed by Walter Flores, who heads a project studying the effects of COVID-19 on the health of refugees and Indigenous populations in rural Guatemala. “In Guatemala, recovery demands closing the historical gaps in health and well-being between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations,” said Flores, principal advisor at the Centro de estudios para la equidad y gobernanza en los sistema de salud (CEGSS).
In addition to innovation, Flores stressed the need for fair taxation and a renewed social contract to ensure an equitable and inclusive recovery.
Marginalized populations such as LGBTQ+ people also face challenges in enjoying their basic human rights due to decades of stigma and discrimination, noted Suchon Tepjan, research manager with VOICES-Thailand Foundation.
“COVID-19 has added salt to the wound. Often invisibly, they are among the first groups impacted, yet last to recover,” said Tepjan, who is working on a project to adapt and disseminate an eHealth intervention to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection among LGBTQ+ populations in Canada, India and Thailand.
More resilient food systems needed
Other research partners underscored the pandemic’s deleterious impact on food security as a result of the disruption in food systems, among other factors.
“The number of food insecure people in Latin America has more than doubled because of the pandemic and many households still struggle to feed their families,” said Ricardo Fort, senior researcher with the Group for the Analysis of Development, which is implementing a project that seeks to understand the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic, improve existing responses and generate better policy options for recovery.
For Mariela Wismann, a sociologist with Rikolto International, the pandemic has shown that governments’ attention to food has been inadequate, with “disjointed programs and policies and an inefficient capacity to respond to the emergency.”
“We need public policies built with citizens that support resilient food systems and guarantee the human right to decent food,” said Wismann, who is part of a project to promote the development of municipal “food hubs” in Peru and Ecuador.
Investing in social enterprises, such as food cooperatives, is one way to help ensure an inclusive and equitable recovery, according to Marie-Christine Bélanger, director of consulting services and innovation at SOCODEVI, which carried out an IDRC-funded study on COVID-19 and food security in West Africa. “During the pandemic, we realized that members benefitting from active support from their co-op experienced more food security, more income stability, therefore less anxiety. So, let’s think co-op!,” Bélanger stated.
Data gaps perpetuate inequality
Some of the experts cited inclusive data as a crucial factor to ensure that vulnerable groups are not left behind in the recovery.
“Macro data often don’t capture those working in informal sectors, like small farmers and producers,” said Abid Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, which is part of a project aimed at providing evidence-based advice to the Government of Pakistan to respond to the crisis and fill information gaps on the needs of the country’s informal workers.
“Equitable and inclusive COVID-19 recovery initiatives, based on inclusive data that capture excluded sectors of the economy, have more chances to reach the targeted beneficiaries,” Suleri noted.
This point was reinforced by Catalina González-Uribe, director of international affairs at Universidad de los Andes, Colombia. “The data gap regarding the experiences of the LGBTI community, homeless population and migrants throughout the pandemic has widened,” said González-Uribe, who is part of a project on the use of artificial intelligence to inform public-health responses to COVID-19 in Colombia, including by developing gender-specific mathematical models on disease progression as well as risk assessment based on socio-demographic and other variables.
González-Uribe added that the lack of national, reliable and accurate data about the impact of COVID-19 on these populations “fosters the reproduction of inequality as these groups are not clearly identified in national data sets of relevance for decision- and policy-making.”
Pro-poor investments boost inclusive recovery
There is also a pressing need to reinforce social safety nets and broaden access to basic services, according to several of the researchers who provided insights.
“Inclusive recovery requires investment in sectors that guarantee life and human dignity, such as health, infrastructure for decent housing, water and sewage, employment and a guaranteed minimum income,” said Rita Correa Brandão, director of Instituto Brasileiro de Análises Sociais e Econômicas, which is undertaking a study on legal empowerment to promote citizen participation and social justice in Rio de Janeiro’s informal settlements.
A similar sentiment was shared by Ritu Verma, principal investigator with Bhutanese Knowledge for Indigenous Development, a transdisciplinary action-oriented research program focusing on adaptation to climate change, agriculture and gender. “An inclusive recovery highlights the importance of social protection, universal health care and cultural context, while focusing and responding to different vulnerabilities, including those experienced by women, children, differently abled and Indigenous people,” Verma stated.
Lessons learned in the education sector
Some of the partners highlighted the need for more support to the education sector to ensure equity and inclusion.
“There are glaring gaps between education policy pronouncements and practice responses that prioritize equity and inclusion,” said Shem Bodo, senior programs officer with the Association for the Development of Education in Africa and a partner in the Knowledge and Innovation Exchange — a joint endeavour between the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) and IDRC that aims to contribute to the improvement of education policy and practice in the Global South.
“Resources are neither adequate nor targeted appropriately to fully implement educational programs, despite the comprehensive and well-written policies,” said Bodo, whose work with the KIX Observatory entails mobilizing evidence about primary and secondary education’s response to COVID-19 across sub-Saharan Africa. He stressed the need for education-sector financing to deliberately prioritize vulnerable groups.
Helani Galpaya, CEO of LIRNEasia, noted that the introduction of remote teaching and reliance on technology during the lockdowns had hurt already-challenged poorer households. “We need students and teachers routinely using digital technology in learning and teaching, with teachers paying particular attention to students from poorer households. That way, when the next climate or health crisis hits, we can transition to remote education without worsening existing gaps in learning outcomes,” said Galpaya, who leads studies in India and Sri Lanka within multi-country research to improve policies on digitalization.
Collaboration is key
Another view shared by some of the researchers was that when crafting and implementing pandemic response initiatives, partnerships and collaboration among different stakeholders can help ensure success.
“National governments that created their pandemic policies in collaboration with other state and non-state actors tended to see fewer COVID-19-related deaths,” said Matías Bianchi, director of Asuntos del Sur. Bianchi leads a project to assess how the pandemic and the responses to the crisis in six Latin American countries have affected the social contract between citizens and the state. “Our Collaborative Governance Index provides evidence that collaboration in the face of COVID-19 saved lives,” he explained.
Phethiwe Matutu, group executive for strategy, planning and partnerships at South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF), stressed the positive role that partnerships have played in an IDRC-supported NRF-run initiative to address research questions and implement science engagement activities associated with the pandemic in 17 African countries.
“Investing in African researchers and science engagement practitioners is unlocking African solutions towards a just and fair recovery. Through leveraging of strategic partnerships, the COVID-19 Africa Rapid Grant Fund was a resounding success in contributing to this,” Matutu stated.
The importance of partnerships for an inclusive recovery was also at the core of the message provided by IDRC President Jean Lebel for this insight-gathering exercise.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and worsening inequalities threaten progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. But through collaboration and inclusive solutions, we can lay the groundwork for a future that benefits everyone,” Lebel said.
View the responses, insights and perspectives we collected from research partners
Learn more about our COVID-19 inclusive response and recovery efforts.
Learn more about the specific research being carried out by the IDRC partners mentioned in this article: