COVID-19 just made the need for science-to-policy very real

A perspective from Asia and the Pacific

By Christine Wellington-Moore, SDG Integration Lead, UNDP Asia-Pacific 

I am a naturally curious person. Always have been… sometimes disturbingly so, say some people who know me well, because of my apparent ability to detach emotionally (their words… not mine!) from a problem, and turn things over to figure out what is driving whatever phenomenon, environmental, biological, socioeconomical, that I am observing. So, as an environmental scientist, with a nearly two-decade United Nations career that has largely involved projects to address drivers of problems, and embedding science in policy for governments and multilateral strategic green investment, I have watched COVID-19 spread with a mixture of horror, interest and awe. As a scientist, I am intrigued by the fact that we are in an unprecedented position, where we don’t have the luxury of waiting for absolute certainty through peer reviewed papers, and scientists are rushing even preliminary findings through to decision makers and peer groups, trying to find solutions, with the cold realization that erring on the side of caution can literally save lives. 

UNDP is building on its support to countries across Asia and the Pacific to help strengthen health systems.
Photo: United Nations/Robert Macpherson

Sitting in Thailand, the second country to detect the virus locally, and after unknown spread in December 2019 when Chinese visitors unknowingly brought it here, causing many of us to have ’really bad flus’, I wondered in hindsight why we didn’t have the rash of deaths experienced in China. As the virus marched westward and southward, wreaking devastating health, economic and social impacts, there were a number of seemingly disparate things that caught my attention, like: 

a) There seemed to be a ring of cities around the globe that were hardest hit. So, I started looking at their geographical coordinates: China (overall) 35.8617 degrees N (Wuhan is around 31 N), Tehran 35.6892 degrees N, Lombardy region 45.479 degrees N, Madrid 40.4168 degrees N, New York City 40.7128 degrees N, Chicago 41.8781 degrees N. Why this limited range between roughly 30- and 40-degrees N? 

Urban slums, such as this Dhaka neighborhood, are more exposed to the virus given the lack of access to water and sanitation.
Photo: Al-Emrun Garjon 

b) In my current role as SDG Integration Advisor, I wrestled to get the attention of colleagues, who, understandably, are focused on responding to the immediate impacts of this crisis, with no time to look in more detail at the near term recovery and resilience effort, and the threats that can be posed to potential new waves of the virus if we make the wrong choices right now. I realized that almost every entity, international or national, private or public, largely lacked a formal Innovation and Learning mechanism in place to rapidly capture the lessons emerging from the crisis to help with rapid response and pivoting. For my agency, UNDP, apart from the critical immediate response to alleviate suffering, we have floods of data that we should be rapidly analyzing to shape into near, mid and long-term service offers to help ’build back better’. But in the frenzy of immediate response requests, I wondered how much the world as a whole is realizing that we need to be prepared for potential second and third waves of COVID-19, and indeed any new pandemics or other shocks (eg. monsoon and hurricane season) that could be months away? 

From robot nurses to drone deliveries. Technology is helping China fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
Photo: UNDP China

c) The fact that policy makers are realizing that epidemiological models are the only ones that can be used at this time of COVID-19, as they make clear how bad things can get, gives some sense of what different interventions can offer, and that similar economic modelling is impossible in this unprecedented situation. Therefore, tying into point b), how can agencies like mine systematically embed rapidly emerging lessons, whether scientific, social, economic, or otherwise, into crisis / policy / technical / advisory support? 

Singapore's digital response to the pandemic is addressing it through surveillance, prevention, containment, diagnosis, and treatment. Photo: UNDP Singapore

d) There are more and more articles citing solid arguments based on the favorable performance of economies and companies with climate-oriented investments in the COVID-19 period, championing green stimulus plans. Solid evidence suggests that low carbon investment creates jobs that are more inclusive, cleaner and better address gender and other inequalities, and the cost of renewable energy has fallen to be competitive with fossil fuels. How in this time of crippling economic, health and social impacts, and acknowledging the default behavior to hold even tighter to familiar responses in times of chaos, can we find opportunities and entry points for countries to take this on board? 

e) We are being challenged that we are not learning fast enough about the pitfalls uncovered by the 2008 financial crisis. Now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, even Financial Times experts call on countries to engage in radical reforms that promote inclusivity, social justice and support, and for governments to take a more active role in shaping the economy by creating social contracts that are beneficial for all. Again: how can international agencies and expert groups work with governments and private sector to co-create and shape integrated service lines to drive this type of transformation? 


The interconnections between these seemingly disjointed areas of geography, epidemiology, socioeconomics and governance have over the last few weeks become clearer to me, as we all work feverishly from our makeshift home offices, trying to cobble together assistance to our client countries, and adjust our non-crisis programmatic offers to meet the COVID-19 reality. The importance of integrating these areas really crystallized for me when a colleague (shout out to UNDP’s @MilicaBegovic!) shared an Economist Article of early findings from University of Bologna scientists, showing that the possible reason for faster and more intense spread of COVID-19 in Northern Italy vs the rest of the country, was that fine particulate matter from air pollution in this valley-situated industrial region is acting as a catalyst. It is doing so not only by causing underlying respiratory issues, but also because the virus attaches to the surface of such pollution particles, mirroring past findings of pollution-driven increases in rate of spread and mortality of coronaviruses that can be found in peer reviewed literature from the previous SARS epidemic.  

Findings from the University of Bologna suggest that air pollution increased the spread of COVID-19 in Italy,
mirroring findings about pollution-driven spread and mortality of the SARS epidemic. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng

This helped me to opine about my first observation on hardest hit, temperate cities: in many temperate countries, fine particulate matter peaks during cooler periods, when anticyclonic weather conditions contribute to the stagnation of air masses above pollutant-emitting areas, and wood, coal and other fossil fuel driven heating is highest. The cities hardest hit, all sit in the more or less anticyclonic, stiller areas of global air circulation, between the strongest circulation at the equator (0 degrees N to about 30 or 40 degrees N), and the next strongest cells of circulation that go between 60 and 70 degrees N. Could this stagnation of air, particularly in the cooler fall/winter and early spring period when particulates may be even higher, be one of the reasons why the impact of the virus appears so intensely? What can happen when winter driven pollution spreads across South-East Asia from Eastern and North Asia? 

As UNDP is developing its COVID-19 response for recovery and resilience, it is crucial to connect this potential link of increased COVID-19 impact by air pollution with the epidemiological background research. Policy advice to governments must stress that there may be a second or more deadlier wave of the virus later in the year.   


The whole COVID-19 pandemic, and its level of impact, appears to be driven by: 1) a virus that jumped from wild animal to human, because humans are encroaching into wildlife ecosystems and are engaging in wild life trade that puts pathogens into high-risk human proximity; 2) environmental degradation, specifically air pollution, together with sheer human density and economic activity, which appear to be optimizing spread of and mortality from the virus, and 3) all of our fragile and unsustainable social, economic, financing, environmental management and trade practices, that allow swift global spread of the virus, and reduce our resilience to such shocks.  

Co-creation and integrated responses are needed to build more inclusive and resilient societies that can cope better with viral pandemics. Photo: Yangon Innovation Center (Myanmar)

With Asia having already seen its first viral peak (at least), we see countries moving to jump start their economies. Despite the clear fragility of past economic models, and the socioeconomic, human and environmental health failures, many are putting together fossil-fuel intensive economic stimulus packages that focus on restarting many of the same sectors that drive up pollution, and encroachment and exploitation of natural ecosystem resources, with the related employment fragility, inequality and social injustice that is being exacerbated by COVID-19.

Effective recovery packages must counter the natural resource exploitation and human driven pollution that were involved in spreading the virus. Photo: United Nations

Therefore, if our social and economic models have ultimately helped to spur the cascade of failures we are observing, then we must urgently find key entry points for meaningful, evidence-based vehicles for transformation. This means taking on board all the clues from expert research and crisis lessons, and put together integrated near / mid / long term recovery and resilience packages, that focus on co-created, integrated, systems-designed, economic, social, environmental and financing modalities, that can help build more inclusive, resilient economies – with robust social support systems. Given the direct role of natural resource exploitation and human driven pollution in spreading the virus, low carbon development and sustainable use of natural resources must be embedded. Without this type of evidence based, integrated intervention, we run the risk of reinforcing the feedback loop of animal-human transmission of pathogens, further enabled to spread and impart dramatic shocks thanks to our pollutive practices and brittle, unequal and non-inclusive economic, trade and social models. 

UNDP is developing more public-private cooperation, as in Bangladesh, where it works with the government and DFID to protect over 2 million urban poor from COVID-19. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh 

Then let us also consider the need to safeguard wider green investments, private and public, that are immediately imperiled by a fossil-fuel intensive recovery. A mainstay of UNDP has been in implementation oversight and de-risking of multilateral, bilateral donor and IFI investments that target environmental sustainability, especially in the area of climate emission reductions, climate adaptation, and ecosystems management. We have been developing more concrete public-private cooperation on sustainability, encouraging co-creation and de-risking of investment vehicles to help in SDG delivery, as well as shaping alternative socioeconomic models in specific sectors, and relevant enabling environments. UNDP itself is managing direct investment to countries in the form of the 100-country Climate Promise to help countries towards a less fossil fuel intensive economic and development model. Considering the amount of green investment that UNDP safeguards for government and other donors, it is imperative we also think of protecting it from an unchecked return to economic-productivity-at-all-costs. 


So how do we do this? Many of us are already beginning to pick up some of these threads of inter-connectedness and are recognizing that we need to immediately start thinking of the post-response recovery and resilience elements. We need modalities to systematically capture, categorize and make accessible economic, social, epidemiological, health, financial, sociological, behavioral and other evidence from the crisis, to help inform collaborative efforts by diverse players. This in turn would allow for co-creation of integrated, innovative policy, advisory and technical solutions to help get countries off this unsustainable and high-risk cycle, while improving human health and creating/promoting jobs. 

UNDP donated 20,000 medical masks to Vietnam as a part of an integrated response to COVID-19.Photo: UNDP Vietnam 

We are out of time for gradual shifts in our social and economic models given the fragility, lack of inclusivity and inequality, and rapid increases in joblessness we are witnessing, as well as the levels and acceleration of environmental degradation. Arguably, we seem to be witnessing a tipping point for not only Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) Investment, but for human quality of life. 

We need to be able to design and deliver solutions around all this evidence – and creating an enabling environment for transformative actions and co-benefits to flourish, is step one. Science-to-policy can no longer be a catch-all description in the vocabulary of development: it is imperative that we walk the talk. 

The very survival of humanity depends on it.

Text: Christine Wellington-Moore, SDG Integration Lead, UNDP Asia-Pacific

Learn more about the social and economic impact of COVID-19 in the Asia-Pacific region