Covid-19 – a catalyst for development?

Posted in: Covid-19, State, Sustainable development

Edited by James Copestake and Rosie Maslin

On 7th April we published the thoughts of a group of scholars on Covid-19 and the Developmental State. We then invited postgraduate students at Bath who are enrolled on development studies and related programmes to share their thoughts on how covid-19 is making them think differently about the relationship between development, the state and other institutions. Here is a lightly edited version of what we received in response. Many thanks to our contributors.

Community support in Somerset, UK

Geors Richards, MRes International Development

I’m unsurprised and heartened to see many initiatives to engage and support communities around the world to face the pandemic, on the part of the RCRC movement, for example. The NHS received 75,000 volunteer applications and had to halt recruitment to process them. But I am surprised at how quickly, seamlessly and efficiently local communities also appear to have organised and activated mutual support networks. ‘Covid19 mutual aid’ was instantly created, with new groups appearing around the UK each day. Existing community groups were the first to respond where I live in the UK. I feel a sense of support and purpose belonging to and volunteering with ‘community cars’, ‘phone befriending’ and ‘vallis vegetables’.  National media generally instils in me a sense of fear and disempowerment. However, the local ‘check in on your nearest 5 neighbours’ campaign driven by Twitter, WhatsApp and Flyering gives me a sense of security and hope. I now know all the names (not faces) of my neighbours, and I feel a new sense of solidarity. If I become ill, they will be the people I first reach out to, not the government, my family, the NHS, or even a voluntary organisation. The power of the government to influence my life on such an intimate level has never been so evident to me. The power of the ‘social check’ casts greater personal and social responsibility on me than any other policing. I feel both powerful and powerless- embracing the local support and agency, and at times raging against the imposed confinement and authority.  A sense of injustice prevails - the government must be more accountable, voluntary efforts must be recognised and valued more, people without space, security and companionship must be treated differently in lockdown.

Volunteering and community led responses in the UK and Sierra Leone

Alice Chadwick, PhD researcher, Department of Social and Policy Sciences.

Covid-19 has shed light on the role of voluntary action in response to crisis. In the UK there has been an overwhelming response through the mobilisation of existing voluntary networks like the Red Cross, the spontaneous emergence of Mutual Aid Support Groups, and later calls from the state for volunteers. This reveals how citizens in times of crisis can often react faster than state apparatus. However, there is a tension between citizen-led mutual aid and government sponsored volunteering. The question for us as a society is what role should be filled by volunteers? Should our hospitals be cleaned by volunteers when there are people losing their jobs every day? In Sierra Leone, where I have been conducting my research, many young volunteers I spent time with are gearing up to respond to Covid-19 in their communities: providing sanitation and food to vulnerable households and undertaking community sensitisation around the disease. Unfortunately, for them this type of response is all too familiar, with their experiences of volunteering during the Ebola outbreak and other crises still fresh in their minds. Maybe what the UK can learn from Sierra Leone is that one of the roles volunteers can take is in sensitising their own communities. Messages from people you trust and avenues for two-way communication are an important means of addressing people’s fears and concerns about the disease and the context of its containment. In the UK the communication strategy seems to have been distinctly one-way, with the public hanging expectantly on the words of daily government press briefings and left to fill in the gaps. It is time for the UK to learn from countries who have faced similar crises, not by directly translating responses but understanding the need for community designed approaches. Volunteers can play a part in this by supporting and sensitising their own communities to develop containment measures that are reflective of their way of life and the external pressures they face.

Industrial restructuring and civic responsibility in Italy

Damiano Sguotti, MSc International Development

Italy has been the first country in Europe to experience the difficult situation of Covid-19. In a pandemic situation, it is hard for a prime minister to find right words. Since the beginning of it, the executive has utilized narratives of civic responsibility and care for others. Indeed, the most famous refrain of the PM in the social networks’ live sessions has been “to keep the distance today to hug each other stronger after”. That constant refrain has stimulated many reflections and business possibilities. For example, the lockdown of all the non-essential industries has led to temporary industrial conversions, with businesses adapting to be part of the ‘civic responsibility’ discourse. For instance, the textile industry – especially the world-famous high fashion sector – has moved into face mask production. Meanwhile, distillery and wine production establishments have switched to producing pure alcohol hand sanitizers, delivered free through local town authorities. The rapidity of this adaptation to a noble cause provokes further thoughts. How many lives could arms manufacturers save by producing medical fans? Will this be the forerunner of a wider ecological transition inspired by the narrative of civic responsibility – including recognition of the positive health effects of pollution reduction, for example? The northern part of Italy, which is both the most polluted and economically developed part of the country, has also been most affected by the pandemic. The consciences awoken by this unprecedented situation can stimulate positive and proactive reflection on the possibilities for a wider and more responsible approach to human rights and environmental sustainability within industrial and civic society.

Finding food and encountering prejudice in lockdown India

A Doctoral student in India.

Lockdown where I live has been one of the strictest in the entire country. We are not allowed to venture outside our homes, and storefronts - big and small - are closed, as well as all restaurants and produce markets. Officially we are confined to ordering the rice, flour, lentils, potatoes and onions offered by the Municipal Corporation - no green vegetables or fruit until after the lockdown ends. But the Municipal Corporation has not been able to deliver on all the orders, so people are having to find other ways to get food. A few private grocery delivery services have been allowed to start operating but their delivery slots are all full so it's impossible to book through their apps. However, we discovered that if you get the personal phone number of delivery personnel and deal directly with them, they have a government 'curfew pass' so grocery shops let them in, and they can shop and deliver things to you after hours. We have also been in communication with friends in a slum area near our house, and they told us the Municipal Corporation hasn't even been stopping to take orders from them for food supplies. The local kirana shops there have also been making home deliveries in the small hours of the morning under the radar, but charging inflated prices. So, it has been difficult. We have gotten in touch with an NGO that is able to supply basics like rice and wheat, and they will be distributing some foodgrains to the slum. So, I think it's taking a lot of civil society ingenuity to find our way through this period. Hopefully, at least some deaths have been averted by the massive effort to keep people at home.

Another thing I have been thinking about is how Covid-19 can aggravate prejudice, particularly against other religious groups.  Crude attempts have been made elsewhere to blame Covid-19 on groups seen as 'the other' – some Americans calling it the 'Chinese virus', for example.  In India, of late, some elements are portraying it as the 'Muslim virus'.  Highly improbable videos have been doing the rounds on social media of people dressed as Muslims allegedly trying to spread germs as much as possible in public.  There have been calls in my city for boycotting Muslim businesses, and today, the neighbourhood association where I live proposed erecting roadblocks on the side adjoining a Muslim area in order to prevent entry of Muslims in our streets.  It is difficult to see how efforts to combat the virus effectively, or beyond that to promote development, will be advanced by trying to vilify one group as the source of the virus, and to retreat into only considering the welfare of our own selves or our immediate social group.  I personally feel that what going through such pandemics has to teach us, if anything, is that we need to summon as much strength as possible by recognising our interdependence and shared destiny as a society.  I feel we would do well to emphasize the moral injunctions contained in every religion to transcend one's own narrow self-interest and serve one another in times of difficulty, rather than using religion as an instrument of social division.  Neither individualism nor groupism of any kind will serve us well in tackling this challenge together.

State capability (1)

Vik Saha, MSc International Development with Conflict and Humanitarian Action

In India, the government has adopted preventive measures of quarantine to stop the spread of this virus, and at the same time is trying to help the 275 million people who earn less than Rs.3,000 per month. However, these plans are failing to assuage public concern in three ways. First, while it has promised to provide rations during the lock-down period, the quantity of the monthly essential staple is insufficient for the whole family. Moreover, people form crowds by having to leave their house to collect food from designated ration shops. The government could have arranged to deliver the ration in homes to avoid this. Official pictures of ration distribution on social media also portray those queuing as coming from poor families, and this comes up against people’s desire to conceal their economic status. Second, daily-wage earners are unable to earn any money, putting the entire family at risk of further economic deprivation in the future. The government has offered monetary compensation of Rs.500 monthly for women, and Rs. 1000 monthly for senior citizens, but many have not been able to obtain this. The amount proposed is in any case too small to meet their needs. Third, covid-19 screening is supposed to be available free for high risk cases from designated government hospitals, but people otherwise have to pay. The test centres are few compared to the population, and the cost of a private test is unaffordable (Rs. 4,500) for many citizens. In addition, India is unable to provide clean water supply, medication, hand soap, and sanitiser free, due to the size and poverty of much of its population, including slum-dwellers, thus increasing the risk of spreading covid-19.

State capability (2)

Javed Ahmed Malik, Doctorate in Policy Research and Practice (DPRP)

In mid-January, some Pakistani students studying in Wuhan contacted their parents about the spread of this strange virus in the city. It was all so new. The entire idea of being in quarantine (which has become a new Urdu word Qaranteenah) was very new to everyone. Many did not believe in the idea of self-isolation. The state authorities remained in denial for a week or so, but then responded relatively quickly and effectively. This was only possible due to past investment in state capacity. First, targeted conditional cash transfer programmes helped Pakistan quickly to quickly target many families using the National Socioeconomic Registry database of 27 million households below poverty line. Expansion of digital technology and cell phone penetration helped many people gain access to this government support. Second, in 2005 a massive earthquake had caused over 70,000 deaths in Pakistan, prompting the state to develop a new federal and provincial level multi-sectoral coordination body called the National Disaster Management Authority. That proved very helpful this time around to coordinate the response, and to procure essential health items like Covid-19 testing kits, safety gear for health professionals, ventilators and above all enforcement of the national lockdown. Third, 24/7 media coverage and internet services allowed to spread health messages easily, which made it easy for NGOs and civil bodies to coordinate help.

Who is a development practitioner now?

Nidhi Sharma, DPRP

As development practitioners, Mahatma Gandhi encouraged us to “recall the face of the poorest and weakest man you have seen, and ask yourself if this step you contemplate is going to be any use to him.” The altruistic motives we hold as development practitioners are now exposed to our own vulnerability as we confront a pandemic which does not distinguish between us, and triggers our deep human fears of death and isolation. The pandemic thereby belies our faith in systems, mechanisms and thoughts, how we view the world, including our faith in science, expertise, reason, holistic approaches and view of life. It also makes me ponder, just who is a development practitioner? The media holds up new faces: grocery store workers, cleaners, medical professionals and carers, food delivery agents. These have emerged as heroes, while the rest of us retreat into the internet to work. In Delhi, the police are delivering food and groceries to the elderly. Accredited Social Health Associates (ASHA) workers, school principals, teachers and administrators are helping authorities to distribute rations at fair price shops (Delhi has 71,00,000 ration card holders) and temporary ration coupons to those without cards. In Kuala Lumpur, communities are forming groups via social media to collect resources and distribute groceries and staples, even between Orang-Asli (indigenous communities) and migrant workers.


How the Covid-19 situation opens new arenas for new actors could be a tectonic shift for the development sector. The private sector brings tremendous expertise into mainstream development. It brings expertise in delivery, codification, supply chains management to the heart of the development agenda, directed at serving the most in need quickly, efficiently, and with precision. This is already being witnessed in various countries where industries have stepped up to the challenge as much as any traditional development practitioner: fashion (PPE masks, suits); automobiles (ventilators); pharmaceuticals (rapid test kits, vaccines); fitness (online classes, rental of equipment for home-use); food and nutrition (FMCG); mental health (webinars, counselling sessions, guided meditation); and information technology (Zoom, Skype, WebEx, Hangouts). While the pandemic has bound development practitioners by rules of social distancing and movement restrictions, it has given birth to new spaces, systems and actors to play new roles. What happens when development means immediately tending to services with precision and results? Instead of bringing private sector into the SDG fora, can we create a new manual, which is agnostic to these labels and focuses on expertise and delivery?

Women on the front line

Judith Hann, MSc Humanitarianism, Conflict, and Development

In the West, multiple heads of state have instrumentalised the coronavirus pandemic (Heisbourg) to centralise power, justified by using the rhetoric of war. This appropriation of conflict language can be contested, but also allows us to examine the lack of consideration of gender in the global pandemic. Covid-19 is a ‘battle’ being fought predominantly by women; WHO analysis of Health and Social Care workforces in 104 countries identified 70% of workers as female. With an average 28% gender pay gap, our Covid-19 army is low paid, and includes many part-time ‘soldiers’ who frequently balance employment with familial responsibilities. Their ‘kit’, where available, is PPE equipment designed for male anatomies, with little specialisation for the female form. Within this Army the lower ranks - care workers - are the lowest paid, least well equipped and most vulnerable, and the deaths they witnessed were until recently being ignored in UK national statistics. Women are fighting this ‘war’ whilst economically disadvantaged and statistically hidden as victims. The nationalisation of crisis policy response to state level has led to hurriedly implemented actions with little regard for intersectional impact. What is needed is a more inclusive, gender-aware examination of policy responses (McKay et al 2013) during and after the current global crisis to provide evidence and recognition of the gender differentials exacerbated by Coronavirus.

Changing perceptions of the state

Tom Parkin, MSc Humanitarianism, Conflict and Development

Our perception of the state depends in part on how much we feel invested in the benefits it provides, and how far we feel able to challenge it. Meanwhile, states’ perceptions of each other vary according to historical precedent, geo-political interests and ideology. Citizens are constrained by how far their governments are able to enforce compliance, eliminate dissent and frame both internal and external threats. This was once much easier to achieve by exploiting minority vested interests and monopolies over the means of communication. The advent of social media, however, has transcended and destabilised state power over information flows. Failure to do so may make them look inept, negligent or indifferent to citizens’ well-being. Once enough citizens lose confidence in the state’s ability to protect them, or feel threatened by the failure of the state, chaos erupts. The state, therefore, seeks full control of all public media and the gradual suppression of dissenting messaging. This is much harder in democracies, but a pandemic presents an opportunity to narrow discussion and mitigate negative news. It can also divert attention from other repressive activities of the state. By claiming to ‘follow the science’, politicians can also seemingly absolve themselves of responsibility, upholding ‘science’ as a divine intervention! Confronting a pandemic, the default position for both states and international organisations, means to act in their own self-interest. However, while this may once have been possible, it is proving a harder act to pull off in a world of globally interconnected supply chains, unequal financial relations and interdependent public health prospects.

What role for the UN Security Council?

Andrew Johnstone, PhD researcher, Social and Policy Sciences

The UN Security Council was established “for the maintenance of international peace and security" usually in relation to intra and inter-state violence.  Although the UN also has other bodies like the WHO to take the lead on medical emergencies, surely there is a role for the Security Council?  Despite the flaws in the post-WW2 organisation of the Security Council, it remains a powerful forum to address local, regional or indeed global threats to security. The 15 current members represent 2.5 billion people. The Security Council gets the attention of world leaders in the way that other forums may not.  However, on the threat to security from the global pandemic it has been broadly silent, other than with reference to specific arrangements relating to on-going conflicts.  The European Commission is coordinating a common European response to the Coronavirus outbreak and a sub-group of G20 leaders are preparing an international response to the impact of the coronavirus crisis in Africa that would include debt relief and financial aid.  Also, the World Bank expects to deploy up to $160 billion over the next 15 months to help countries protect the poor and vulnerable, support businesses, and bolster economic recovery.  But the human security threat is now – and to some of the most vulnerable societies in the global community.  However, there is a deafening silence from the UN Security Council in New York. But, should we be surprised.  China is unlikely to take a lead on this issue other than on its own bilateral terms; and the US President is somewhat late to understanding the impact of the virus at home in the US let alone globally. It seems that two things come out of this in relation to the Security Council; firstly, the blinkered approach to global security issues and its limitations as an organisation; secondly, the impact of a lack of global leadership.  Any coordination or international response has reverted to national bilateral arrangements as each look after their own – even in the EU.  But this is a global issue and the first test since the 2008 financial crash that requires global political leadership and decision making as well as technical (medical led) responses.  Unfortunately, our latest crop of politicians have shown their limitations.

Time for a new commitment to global cooperation

Andrew Fyfe, DPRP

I write this from New York, from my locked-down apartment at the end of our fifth week of quarantine. Across the East River I can see the Empire State Building flashing bright red all night, as it has every night, ostensibly to recognize the gargantuan efforts of the city’s health care workers to save this city from the scourge of the coronavirus. In reality, the flashing light - which is visible from all corners of this huge city - represents the unprecedented ‘red alert’ that New York is facing right now. More than 10,000 people have tragically lost their lives since the beginning of March, a disproportionate number of them from immigrant and minority neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, 1.2 million New Yorkers have lost their jobs in the last month, compared to 50,000 over the same period last year. Ten blocks up I can see another building – the United Nations Secretariat – with flags of all 193 of the UN’s Member States fluttering outside – a symbol of the ability of the world to build a global institution in the aftermath of a murderous world war mandated in international law to “promote the economic and social advancement of all peoples”. What lesson should we draw from the surreal sight of a field hospital set up in Central Park, and a navy hospital ship berthed in Manhattan, to deal with the overflow of patients from some of the best medical facilities in the world? Perhaps it is that this crisis confirms no country can be an island; that the potential bounties of a globalized world come also with significant threats, and that if the original aims of the UN Charter are to be fulfilled, then we need a new commitment to global cooperation to overcome such crises. This is true of humanitarian crises that arise from natural disasters, from the lack of economic and social rights faced by billions of our world’s citizens, or most immediately from an international health crisis such as this, as it spreads to all parts of the world without regard to their capacity to fight back.

Sign up to CDS newsletter for all our latest blog posts and news. Please find the link here.


Posted in: Covid-19, State, Sustainable development


  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response

  • Thank you for this blog with very introspective articles and relevant topic confronting the world with no certain outcomes so far. It is an unprecedented challenge where everybody was not prepared to deal with . If and when we get through this, the world will never be the same again . Poverty level would have retreated down to thirty years back or more, changed the mental and psychological outlooks of many and create a new normal. On the positive, nature and the environment would have had its break , pollution decreased and deforestation and poaching of endangered species decreased. Eventually perhaps, spiritually would have increased .How do we see a new normal for our world ? Can lessons be learned by our leaders and the society ? Could it mean more tolerance, compassion, and a realization that we are closely intertwined and actually need each other?