In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, communities across the world are still under strict lockdown measures of different types and scope. Imposing them was a matter of protecting health, lifting them will largely be a matter of politics.
Finding the right exit strategy is something the international humanitarian community has been grappling with for decades — when to exit and how. It will be beneficial, then, to learn from the experiences of the aid sector, as an early exit may encourage the recurrence of the pandemic, while a late exit may lead to widespread economic downturns with irreversible consequences.
Three types of exit are on the table.
The first is a cut-and-run
It’s a pejorative term used by the humanitarian field because such a hasty exit of aid programs fails to address many socio-economic and human security-related issues affecting the livelihoods of crisis-affected communities.
The quick termination of aid programs is usually the result of substantive programmatic failures and defunding. The withdrawal of humanitarian projects in the post-tsunami period in Indonesia and short-term aid following the earthquake in Haiti are some examples of a cut-and-run exit, which had dire consequences for the disaster-affected populations.
In a COVID-19 cut-and-run, governments would opt for the significant reduction or termination of lockdown measures, at the first opportunity, and exit quickly. The economic concerns will likely be some of the main drivers in such a decision, as countries are already facing mounting unemployment, production and service provision challenges.
There is now enough evidence from East Asia, however, indicating that a premature lifting of lockdown measures could re-ignite the ferocity of the pandemic. Whatever the reasons for the cut-and-run type of exit might be, it is quite certain that it would likely do more harm than good.
The second is a phased withdrawal
This baby-steps the interventions in order to lessen the impact. Determining when and how to withdraw is a key consideration for a successful exit. Aid programs, for example, usually adopt one of these two strategies: First, agencies pre-determine deadlines or timetables of withdrawal before initiating their aid programs. Second, they use benchmarking to decide the withdrawal procedures, based on consideration of whether the project has achieved its goals (for aid workers, a goal of lowering child mortality rates prior to withdrawal is an exemplary benchmark). These have been applied in many war-affected countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Sierra Leone, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Burundi with a wide range of humanitarian programs.
Although COVID-19 lockdown measures started with some deadlines, they’ve been extended several times. Lockdowns without predetermined deadlines, timetables, or standards are not a good policymaking tool. They create unrest, impatience and unmet expectations. At this point, a more effective tool for exit strategy planning is to benchmark, with a lowering of confirmed cases and deaths and the protection of certain risk groups as the guideposts. Map the expected benchmarks — regarding desired or expected cases, deaths and protections — over a period of time and undertake the process gradually. Austria, Belgium, Denmark and Spain have already started such a benchmarked exit from their lockdown measures. More should follow suit.
The third is a transition to another program
In the aid world, relief aid programs are transitioned to deal with more comprehensive reconstruction needs. The transformation from "food aid" to "poverty reduction," for example, was one of the key agendas in agricultural reconstruction. In recent programs in Rwanda, Mozambique, Somalia, and Afghanistan, the provision of seeds and tools (rather than food) has been adopted as a method for enhancing productivity among farmers and promoting sustainable agricultural rehabilitation.
In the case of COVID-19 response, channeling current efforts into long-term public health protection should be the aim. Many countries were hardly equipped to deal with a disaster of this scale and magnitude. This structural deficiency must be addressed. The absence of public health policies and provisions exposed large segments of the population to huge death tolls.
Any policymaking during withdrawal, therefore, should focus on future preparedness and ways to equip public health systems with more effective response mechanisms. Countries that failed to invest in intensive care facilities — such as Italy and Spain — and communities that lacked access to health services — such as African Americans in the U.S. — were disproportionally affected by the pandemic. A systems fix must now be prioritized in order to protect them from future health crises.
In sum, the cut-and-run exit should be avoided at all costs. A phased withdrawal with benchmarking of where we need to be, over time, with a decreased number of COVID-19 cases and deaths and increased protection of at-risk groups is the first step. But the bigger strategy — transitioning to more comprehensive public health programs as part of any exit — brings the most significant long-term benefits. It’s time to take a lesson from the aid community — and exit the right way.
Alpaslan Özerdem is the dean of George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter School for Peace and Conflict Resolution.