The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has been the biggest health emergency for 100 years. The crisis immediately put a squeeze on health and medical resources around the world, particularly here in Asia and the Pacific. Among the most immediate priorities was the procurement and dispersal of medical supplies and protective equipment, such as ventilators, thermal scanners, and masks. As the region’s biggest source of development financing, the Asian Development Bank had the financial resources for these supplies and an understanding of the level of need in each of our developing members—but ADB knew there were other organizations with stronger technical, legal, and logistical expertise to obtain and deliver these supplies. That led to a partnership between ADB and UNICEF which, in a very short time, is delivering some $18 million of critical supplies to more than two dozen countries—and playing an important role in limiting the spread and impact of this deadly pandemic in our region.

Here’s how the partnership between ADB and UNICEF came to be, the obstacles it overcame, and the impact already being felt in our member countries.

Patrick Osewe, ADB Health Sector Chief, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department:

How ADB and UNICEF Partnered to Fight COVID-19
In July, a worker unloads boxes containing 2,300 masks and 700 protection coveralls for the Department of Preventing Diseases of Epidemiological and Sanitary Agency in the Kyrgyz Republic.

In early January, we started hearing of a new virus circulating in People’s Republic of China (PRC) and by the end of January we realized there was something wrong. The WHO (World Health Organization) declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and we were starting to see it spread beyond PRC to Republic of Korea. So ADB determined that we needed to support our developing member countries (DMCs). And based on our discussions with the WHO, it affirmed that the capacity of a lot of our DMCs may not be strong  enough to respond to such a rapidly spreading pandemic.

I'm an epidemiologist, I used to work at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Bank where I worked a lot on epidemics and pandemics. Over the past 20 years, we’ve had pandemics like SARS and H1N1 but you can’t compare them to COVID-19, this is more like the Spanish Flu of 1918. It’s a massive outbreak that needed a global lockdown. And because of the rapid spread, the demand for medical supplies, not just PPE (personal protective equipment) but ventilators and other supplies as well, was massive.

In February, ADB allocated $2 million for countries to source protective equipment, which was followed by another $2 million in March, $44 million in April, and $300,000 in June for a total of $48.3 million. ADB offered developing members a choice: procure the supplies themselves, allow ADB to procure them, or allow ADB to work with a third party.

Eduardo Banzon, ADB Principal Health Specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department:

We actually have formal Memorandums of Understanding (MOUs) with UNICEF and UNDP which allows us to transfer funds to either agency. But UNDP does not procure, UNDP does not engage countries at the same level as UNICEF and we had worked with UNICEF after the floods in Nepal in 2008. We signed the MOU with UNICEF in 2018 and then there were two specific projects: maternal and newborn health in Tajikistan and a vaccines program in the Pacific.

Nalinee Nippita, Regional Lead Partnerships, UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific:

I was one of the authors of the 2018 MOU, so I followed it very closely and I was just happy to see it come to life. I spent seven years in New York, working with the World Bank and other MDBs precisely on this kind of engagement and ADB has always been on the agenda in terms of: how can we help influence the financing that ADB brings into our countries to help children and the vulnerable?

Working from the terms of the 2018 MOU, ADB met with UNICEF to discuss how it could procure medical supplies for developing members in Asia and the Pacific.

Nalinee Nippita, Regional Lead Partnerships, UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific:

How ADB and UNICEF Partnered to Fight COVID-19
Some of the 20,000 pairs of medical gloves delivered to the Kyrgyz Republic in April.

UNICEF is a big procurer of supplies so we're able to shape the market by bringing prices down because we buy for the entire world. We were not actually the lead procurer initially, I think, of PPE. But eventually UNICEF was designated as the lead procurer of PPE supplies for the UN and our partners. And again, when UNICEF procures, we always follow the WHO standard in terms of the specifications and quality control. So, if a government tells us “we want this, we want that,” we check that it's up to the standards of the WHO. It's not just procuring out of the blue anything that a government wants. And because we have a presence in every country, we also work with the Ministry of Health (MOH) on a daily basis and that helps us avoid any duplication. We also work with other partners at the country level including Non-Governmental Organizations and CSOs. We already have that capacity so, in a way, it was opportune that ADB and UNICEF connected, and we were able to support the essential medical COVID-19 supplies that were needed.

With financing from ADB, UNICEF began procuring medical supplies and equipment—from manufacturers domestically to meet the urgent need of some countries and then through manufacturers in countries like PRC for larger orders.

Eduardo Banzon ADB Principal Health Specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department:

We advised the social sector directors in our regional departments to reach out to the Ministries of Health in their countries. We wanted to make sure that we were actually responding to what the governments needed and what the governments should really need. At the same time, the countries that had the most immediate needs were the ones that really reached out to us. So Bhutan, Pakistan, India, Armenia, Kyrgyz Republic, and Sri Lanka. And UNICEF handled the logistical side of things.

Nalinee Nippita, Regional Lead Partnerships, UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific:

Governments are very busy; they have a lot on their hands. So, we're able to provide support in terms of procurement and logistics to get essential supplies into the country. And at the same time, provide the in-country distribution, training, and monitoring to make sure that these supplies get to frontline workers, the communities, and healthcare facilities.

Dai-Ling Chen, ADB Young Professional, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department:

Soon after we signed the first administrative arrangement with UNICEF, I think two weeks later, the first batch of goods had already arrived in Sri Lanka.

To date, the partnership between ADB and UNICEF is helping to deliver $18 million in emergency health and medical supplies to 26 DMCs: Armenia, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Cook Islands, Fiji, India, Kiribati, Kyrgyz Republic, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Mongolia, Myanmar, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Nepal, Niue, Pakistan, Palau, Samoa, Sri Lanka, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu, Uzbekistan, and Vanuatu. 

Eduardo Banzon, ADB Principal Health Specialist, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department:

We wanted to respond rapidly to the needs of our DMCs and working with UNICEF allowed us to do that. We wanted to make sure that our response was an appropriate response. That we weren’t imposing something that a country doesn’t want or did not ask for. Nor were we just responding to a country with whatever they wanted without it being vetted. So we wanted to make sure it was an appropriate, efficient response and working with UNICEF allowed us to do that. And working with UNICEF gives us a better chance to make sure that this is sustainable support. So it's not just “here's the goods, buh-bye” but hopefully, this becomes more than that.

Nalinee Nippita, Regional Lead Partnerships, UNICEF East Asia and the Pacific:

I think it's about going back to what a partnership really is all about. Using each other's strengths and comparative advantages and our teamwork on the ground. We have the same clients but we're coming at it from different angles. And if we can join up at the country level, that's where the magic happens.

I think my colleagues on the ground who are impacted on the front line with MOH, the health workers, including trash collectors and everybody who's using PPEs, test kits, ventilators, and thermal scanners, at the moment they can say that this partnership is helping.

Patrick Osewe, ADB Health Sector Chief, Sustainable Development and Climate Change Department:

COVID-19 took us by surprise because it’s more devastating than any pandemic we’ve seen in 100 years. It’s hard to convey the magnitude and the devastation. Nobody really expected that the virus was this infectious, that the virus could spread around the world so fast and swamp hospital systems as much as it did. This is going to be a long fight, probably with many setbacks. But the partnership between ADB and UNICEF has helped build confidence that although this is a virus, a bad virus, it’s one we can fight and manage together. I just want to emphasize that we're making a difference. A little one, but we’re making a difference.

Authors:

Patrick Osewe, ADB Health Sector Chief
Patrick Osewe
Health Sector Chief, ADB

Eduardo Banzon, ADB Principal Health Specialist
Eduardo Banzon
Principal Health Specialist, ADB

Nalinee Nippita, Regional Lead Partnerships, UNICEF
Nalinee Nippita
Regional Lead Partnerships, UNICEF

Dai-Ling Chen, ADB Young Professional
Dai-Ling Chen
Young Professional, ADB
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