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How UN agencies in West & Central Africa are supporting governments and the population to respond to COVID-19 pandemic

Mabingue Ngom,

Chair a.i. R-UNSDG-WCA, & Regional Director, UNFPA West and Central Africa Regional Office

There is growing concern over the steady increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in West and Central Africa, a region already faced with daunting security, development and humanitarian challenges. Any response requires closest political attention, technical support and innovative partnerships to mobilize resources for the immediate health response and to address the social and economic impact that could affect even more people.

However, the COVID-19 response should not be done at the expense of existing programmes and activities. Stabilizing the regions, at the security and economic levels, should remain a priority if we want to prevent a next humanitarian emergency.

UN Agencies, under the aegis of the Regional United Nations Sustainable Development Group for West and Central Africa (R-UNSDG-WCA) have been working round the clock with governments, since the first case was reported the region, on 29 February 2020, to ensure adequate preparedness and response to the coronavirus disease in the region.

This week, the UN Deputy Secretary-General released the framework document that is guiding the UN’s urgent socio-economic support to countries and societies in the face of COVID-19. That framework spells out how the UN is focused on:

  • Saving lives
  • Protecting people
  • Rebuilding better, alongside the health response, led by the World Health Organization (WHO) & the humanitarian response (as in the UN-led COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan

The socio-economic response framework consists of five streams of work to protect the needs and rights of people living under the duress of the pandemic, with particular focus on the most vulnerable countries, groups, and people who risk being left behind.

  1. Ensuring that essential health services are still available and protecting health systems;
  2. Helping people cope with adversity, through social protection and basic services;
  3. Protecting jobs, supporting small and medium-sized enterprises, and informal sector workers through economic response and recovery programmes;
  4. Guiding the necessary surge in fiscal and financial stimulus to make macroeconomic policies work for the most vulnerable and strengthening multilateral and regional responses; and
  5. Promoting social cohesion and investing in community-led resilience and response systems.


Protecting and promoting Economic Social Cultural Rights

It is of utmost importance to ensure that the population everywhere continues to have access to social services and social protection and that people, regardless of their status, are included in national preparedness and response plans. The UN's response in the field of social protection and basic services will support governments to adapt, extend and scale-up services.

Right to Health

Focus on the most vulnerable and marginalized groups through ensuring the continuity of services in fragile settings and supporting efforts to fill gaps in tracking and reaching vulnerable populations in all countries.

Enhancing participation and protection civic space

While states have an obligation to prevent the spread of the pandemic, doing so should not be a pretext for discrimination, repression or censorship, including targeting women, human rights defenders, or environmental defenders. During and after this pandemic, public institutions, democracy, multilateralism, social dialogue and the rule of law will all be tested.

Gender-based approach

Sex-disaggregated data in designing socio-economic efficient and sustainable responses is especially important, given the role that women are playing as frontline healthcare workers, including healthcare providers and caregivers, as community leaders and in the informal economy.


What do these mean for us in West and Central Africa?

Controlling Transmission, Fighting Misinformation

Given the weak health systems, the lack of manufacturing of critical drugs and equipment such as ventilators and the international competition for these items in the global market, controlling transmission is critical.

•          Drawing lessons from the 2014-15 Ebola outbreak response experience, UN agencies are supporting governments to rapidly track down, screen and quarantine potential patients, actively engaging with community groups to disseminate information, listen to people and incorporate the feedback into their strategies. Some countries are already sharing and collaborating on lessons on disease surveillance and contact-tracing to break the chain of transmission.

•          States should opt for enhanced disease surveillance at borders, instead of border closures, whose impact may be devastating on mobile populations and local economy.

•          To counter the dangerous epidemic of misinformation, UN agencies, media, civil society organizations flood the internet with scientific and verified information to ensure people have access to the information they understand need to protect themselves and others.

Upholding people’s lives, dignity and livelihoods 

•          The UN is particularly concerned about the impact of COVID-19 on poor countries and the most vulnerable of their populations such as migrants, refugees, and those in low-income. The 1.3 million refugees, 1.6 million Stateless, over 5.6 million internally displaced persons and tens of thousands of stranded migrants in West and Central Africa need urgent support.

•          More than 19 million people face food insecurity in the coming lean season (June-August 2020) in West and Central Africa. That number could double by the end of the year due to the socio-economic impact of the measures taken to limit the spread of COVID-19, if action is not taken by governments and the international community.

•          Countries must ensure that women, children and other vulnerable groups at greater risk of domestic violence (including Gender-Based Violence) have access to adequate protection. Services to prevent and respond to violence against women need to be considered an essential service.

•          The UN is calling on families and leaders at all levels to protect children. Socio-economic impact of the pandemic, together with measures to mitigate the spread of the new coronavirus, are putting young lives at risk in key areas such as education, food, safety and health.


•          Containment measures are affecting even further children’s ability to access proper water/sanitation/hygiene, nutrition, health, education and protection services with humanitarian and development actors facing more challenges to deliver life-saving aid. Over 128 million children and youth are directly affected by nationwide school closures in West and Central Africa – in addition to the estimated 41 million of out-of-school children aged 6-15 years old before COVID-19. About 11 million children under five-year-old would be suffering from acute malnutrition in the course of the year

•          Women are disproportionately represented in the service industries and the informal sector which are amongst those hardest-hit by measures to reduce COVID-19 transmission. Countries must ensure that measures to stimulate the economy, like cash transfers, credits and loans are targeted at women. Social safety nets must be expanded. Unpaid care work must be recognized and valued as a vital contribution to the economy.

•          Stigma and discrimination are unacceptable at all times, everywhere and also in the context of this pandemic. The UN is concerned about reports of stigmatization and discrimination targeting migrants and displaced populations.  We must make every effort to avoid the rise of racism and xenophobia.

Rapid Recovery

•          The recovery from COVID-19 provides the opportunity to boost local production and invest in resilient infrastructure and intra-African regional value chains.

Resource Mobilization and partnerships

Partnerships and resource mobilization are critical to responding to COVID-19 pandemic and its impact. Everyone has a role to play – from International Financial Institutions and multilateral institutions to private sector and local manufacturers.

•          Alleviating crushing debt is crucial and the UN will continue to advocate for debt relief for countries in West and Central Africa.

•          In line with his call for a comprehensive global response package amounting to a double-digit percentage of global GDP, the UN Secretary-General has called for at least $200 billion for Africa to address immediate needs and recover better.

•          The UN Development system in the region is reprogramming and repurposing funds to meet the urgent need to procure critical supplies and also maintain the functionality and operational capacity of governments. A significant proportion of the UN’s existing $17.8 billion portfolio of sustainable development programmes across all the SDGs is being adjusted and expanded towards COVID-19 related actions.

•          The UN Economic Commission for Africa is working closely with member states in key areas, helping develop food readiness plans, and, together with African Finance Ministers, calling on the international community for a debt relief package.

  • UN agencies are working with governments and partners, to implement the recently launched US$2 billion Global Humanitarian Response Plan. International donors pledged a quarter (US$550 million) of that amount at the launch in March 2020.
  • The UN (WFP) is setting up the logistics backbone for global COVID-19 efforts. These include air transport hubs around the world including one in West Africa. But it urgently needs an initial US$350 million to set up these hubs around the world.
  • The UN agencies and aid workers urge the governments in West and Central Africa to allow for humanitarian corridors that would permit health and aid workers to move, serve people and save lives. If we cannot adequately roll-out essential logistics services, the response to COVID-19 in the world’s most fragile settings is in jeopardy.