UN Leaders: Vulnerable People Should be the Most Protected from COVID-19
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The President of the UN Economic and Social Council convened an informal briefing among UN system leaders to address the "incomprehensible setbacks" to development due to the COVID-19 pandemic and consider ways to recover sustainably.

The UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs said the 2020 edition of the yearly SDG Progress Report will be released soon, and will indicate how many people are likely to be pushed back into poverty by the crisis.

The President of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) convened an informal briefing among UN system leaders to discuss building on the UN’s operational framework for social and economic responses to the pandemic. 

Convening virtually for the live, interactive dialogue, the heads of agencies and other officials proposed ways to recover from social, economic, and environmental setbacks and “get back on track for the SDGs.”

Opening the briefing titled, ‘Joining Forces: Effective Policy Solutions for Covid-19 Response,’ on 11 May 2020, ECOSOC President Mona Juul cited “incomprehensible setbacks to our hard-won development goals” due to COVID-19. She stated that global poverty is set to increase for the first time since 1998, malaria mortality could return to levels from 20 years ago in sub-Saharan Africa because of disruptions in programmes, and violence against women and girls has become “a shadow pandemic.” In this context, she called on countries to fulfill their promises to leave no one behind.

UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed said the crisis shows the “intimate relationship between humans, animals and the environment.” She stressed the urgency of addressing climate change, avoiding habitat loss and fragmentation, reversing the loss of biodiversity, reducing pollution and improving waste management and infrastructure. For recovery along a sustainable track, she said the SDGs, Paris Agreement on climate change, and Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing for development (FfD) can guide countries. Mohammed reported that the UN’s 131 country teams have mobilized to support national governments in developing response plans, and she called for cash transfers to be targeted at women, among other measures to support those at risk of being left behind. 

A dialogue among the heads of UN bodies was moderated by Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International. Albrectsen said that in this crisis, leaders can help vulnerable people be “the least impacted, and not the most impacted.”

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom drew attention to the recent launch of the ‘Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator’ for the development, production and equitable access to new COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. He said almost 8 billion USD has been raised but is still not enough. Adhanom added that strong national and subnational health systems are the best defense against outbreaks as well as everyday health threats, and “we can no longer rush to fund panic but let preparedness go by the wayside.”

Dongyu Qu, Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), offered two suggestions for handling the pandemic: ensure food systems remain functional throughout the crisis; and avoid export restrictions – a mistake made during the 2007-2008 food crisis. He called for scaling up and speeding up the digitalization of the agro-food system after the pandemic. 

From the International Labour Organization (ILO), Director General Guy Ryder said the “new normal needs to be a better normal.” He said six of ten workers in the world are in the informal economy, and they need immediate support and social protection, which will require international cooperation. He reported that the informal workforce has a high concentration of women, as does the health and care workforce. He expressed hope that women will be placed at the center of reorganizing the care economy. Ryder also stressed that workplaces must be safe when workers return: “there is a lot of anxiety about that.” Safety and livelihood must not be placed into conflict with each other, he cautioned. 

UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi discussed the “pre-existing conditions” in many countries that are now exacerbating consequences of the pandemic – such as their decade of slow recovery from the 2008 crisis. He said developing countries’ debt is getting in the way of taking emergency action to contain the virus and recover economically. To address this, a new global debt deal is needed. The deal would build on the debt moratorium, include enhanced debt relief and restructuring, and provide for a new debt authority for developing countries to “structure a sustainable way of dealing with the pandemic without sacrificing sustainable development gains.”

UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) Executive Secretary Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana said the Asia-Pacific is affected by several natural disasters each year, and the pandemic does not lessen the need to invest in addressing climate change. She highlighted the need to build resilience and have emergency response plans ready to activate when disaster strikes, which she noted would lessen the overall costs of disaster. She also emphasized the need to invest in protecting the ocean, which absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2), and climate finance.

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that as a medical doctor she hopes finance ministers now see the benefits of investing in health, rather than seeing it as a cost. She also highlighted that while the virus does not discriminate, its impacts do. The most vulnerable include: those who lack water and sanitation systems to allow for frequent handwashing; people with poor housing conditions making it difficult to practice social distancing; people in confinement, such as care homes; women and children suffering from domestic violence; and people who rely on services that are stopped because resources have been diverted. As a result, she said, “we are at risk of leaving behind people who are already behind.”

The moderator highlighted a stakeholder input to the dialogue, noting the right of the poorest and most vulnerable to help in shaping policy responses. Bachelet added that the right to participate in the design of the response and recovery cannot be suspended. The poorest “really know the problems” and should be consulted despite the difficulties in accessing digital technologies amid lockdown measures.

In closing remarks, Liu Zhenmin, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, informed participants that the 2020 edition of the yearly SDG Progress Report will be released soon. It will indicate how many people are likely to be pushed back into poverty by the COVID-19 crisis, among other statistical updates on sustainable development issues. [Meeting webpage] [UN news story

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