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How Covid aid abroad will save lives at home. James Cowan, CEO of landmine charity The HALO Trust says the last month has been the Covid ‘Battle of Britain’.

But wars are not won at home. Now is the Prime Minister’s chance to emulate his hero Churchill and convene a global alliance for good.

By Major General James Cowan, CEO of the HALO Trust

For those of us who are committed to Britain as a force for good, the Covid-19 pandemic presents a moment of profound change.

April was indeed the cruellest month, as coronavirus deaths climbed exponentially across the US and Europe. But those were leading economies with world class health services. The devastation in the developing world, where healthcare is patchy and economies are fragile, is a terrifying prospect.

The International Rescue Committee estimates there could be between 500m and 1 billion infections, potentially leading to between 1.7 m to 3.2 m deaths in 34 conflict-affected and fragile countries. For many of us it is obvious that the UK has a moral imperative to stand by poor countries as Covid-19 whips mercilessly through them.

But this is unlikely to be an uncontested view. With the NHS under pressure and the prospects of a devastating economic downturn, there will be many calling for charity to begin at home. The expected decrease in GDP will shrink the 0.7 per cent international aid budget considerably. Many will argue that the budget should be reduced further.

That argument must be countered – and loudly. As Europe and the US gradually ease their lockdown restrictions, governments will be looking for signs of the second wave and in a global pandemic, national borders are a flimsy defence – if any at all.

The fact is that unless we help combat Covid in the developing world, it will simply come back to the UK and claim even more lives.

As has now been widely observed, we are only as strong as the weakest health system. The UK was right to sign up to the G20 when it called for connected global action, debt relief, investment in vaccines and assistance to communities hit by the virus. It was also right when it became the largest donor to OCHA’s Global Humanitarian Response plan and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations work towards a vaccine. But from the £200m additional relief announced by DFID, only £20m will go directly to British NGOs working in the field. The rest will be funnelled through the UN.

This is the UK’s first missed opportunity. Of course we should contribute to the UN fund. But Britain is widely recognised as a centre of excellence for humanitarian aid. Many of our overseas charities have been established for several decades and have the local workforce and knowledge to mobilise and distribute personnel and supplies quickly. Yet many of these charities are vulnerable as domestic fundraising revenue declines. Worse, there are talented and trusted local staff who are ready for action but forced to wait for funding to be funnelled through the UN machine. DFID could instantly mobilise this powerful resource by significantly increasing the £20m and permitting existing funding to support NGO’s core costs.

The landmine clearance organisation I lead employs 8,500 local men and women in 25 countries. They are trained to conduct hazardous tasks in difficult terrain. We have thousands of vehicles and ambulances at our disposal. As national lockdowns prevent demining, too many staff and vehicles are simply waiting for funding to be released so they can get moving. Around a third of them are in Afghanistan, where we have worked for over three decades and under every regime. We have already been asked to lead the national logistic cluster. If Covid breaks out in Helmand, then my staff will be among the first to know – and with enhanced donor flexibility, they can be the first to react.

As a former soldier, I’m no fan of aid for aid’s sake. Perhaps uniquely, I’m a humanitarian who understands realpolitik. It is clear that the developing world will be far worse hit by the strategic and economic rather than medical consequences of Covid. Tackling those consequences will therefore be vital to maintain fragile security in conflict hotspots. Al-Qaeda has already called on jihadists to use periods of isolation to self-reflect and support jihad. In Libya, my organisation is the only British agency on the ground. With warring parties unable to observe even temporary ceasefires, it may fall to us to coordinate the national response. We already use pioneering GIS technology to map bombs, mines and mortars in residential areas there. This could easily be turned into a Covid tracking and tracing mechanism which would allow impartial monitoring that crosses over frontlines. But as every British tourist who has visited the Mediterranean in the last few years knows, North Africa is the gateway to Europe. An escalated Covid crisis in Libya would have serious repercussions here, given the number of asylum seekers who continue to enter Europe from its coast.

The second opportunity the UK government is missing is the chance to show global leadership, which so far, has been conspicuous in its absence. More than ever before we need a global alliance of donors, medics and logisticians, but its coordination will demand decisive leadership. For Boris Johnson, it is an opportunity to emulate his hero Winston Churchill. The last month has been the Covid ‘Battle of Britain’. But wars are not won at home. Now is the prime minister’s chance to convene governments, commercial actors and NGOs on a scale not seen since the Second World War.

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