4 May 2020
Three Lessons to Help Navigate the Uncharted Waters of COVID-19
Photo by Ruslan Bogdanov on Unspalsh
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The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs is issuing fact-based policy briefs on responding to COVID-19 to help the world navigate the tough choices needed to build back a better and more sustainable world.

Caring for one’s own people is not enough to protect them, because a virus that exists anywhere is a virus that exists everywhere, making international cooperation a critical ingredient.

Only together can the people and nations of the world rise stronger from the scourge of disease, just as our predecessors did 75 years ago from the ravages of war.

The COVID-19 pandemic has become an all-consuming international crisis, bringing challenges to humankind not seen since WWII. Every day, the crisis forces leaders of cities, businesses, regions and nations to take decisions that not only affect people’s lives and livelihoods today, but are also shaping the world that will emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown.

Through its new series of policy briefs on the response to COVID-19, the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) aims to make these decisions easier and better informed, ensuring they are grounded in solid evidence and backed up by detailed analysis. Issued periodically since 1 April 2020, the policy briefs advise on designing inclusive stimulus packages, preventing a global debt crisis, and using digital government tools to fight the contagion, among other pressing topics.

The lessons that emerge from our policy briefs can be broadly summarized in three points:

World leaders must do everything in their power to save human lives and protect their people—especially the most vulnerable—from serious illness. That means, first and foremost, listening to science, acting faster on its recommendations, and sharing the fruit of research equitably.

But caring for one’s own people is not enough to protect them, because a virus that exists anywhere is a virus that exists everywhere. More than ever before, a multilateral effort is needed to contain and stop the spread of the virus and address its devastating consequences. This requires efforts to provide direct assistance to the most vulnerable, ease the financial woes of developing countries to help them finance their COVID-19 response, and combat the spread of misinformation. We can only win this fight with solidarity.

Experiences from the 2008 financial crisis point to better solutions, such as small businesses protection, debt forbearance, and expanded public health spending.

Secondly, we must bail out the people. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have quickly spread from the health sector to the global economy, which is expected to shrink by almost 1% this year, threatening to plunge tens of millions of people into poverty.

The social consequences of previous economic downturns, including the global financial crisis in 2008, propelled the issue of inclusive growth and development to the forefront of the global agenda. That is why our experiences from these downturns are important for identifying better solutions today, such as: expanding public health spending and social protection, keeping small businesses afloat, and enacting government transfers and debt forbearance.

Yet the economic consequences are already reaching catastrophic levels.  Investors have pulled around US$90 billion out of emerging markets – the largest outflow ever recorded. To give developing countries a fighting chance against the deadly virus, we need to support them through a globally coordinated response, amounting to at least a tenth of the world’s economic output, and significantly increase access to concessional international financing.

Lastly, we need to recover better. As the curves of cases and fatalities begin to flatten and some countries ease the restrictions on movement, many people wonder when life will return to normal. But the “normal” that existed for most of the world was hunger and inequality, rampant poverty, and growing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The pause that the pandemic hit on that world is an opportunity to build more inclusive and sustainable societies and move forward in a better direction – the one pointed to by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As governments mount their multi-trillion dollar responses to the crisis, they must invest it in the future, not the past, by ending fossil fuel subsidies and investing instead in social protection and health care systems. The way we respond to the immediate danger of the coronavirus will define our world for generations to come.

For this policy guidance and advice to be effective, one more ingredient must materialize: international cooperation. No one country can succeed in fighting a global crisis in isolation. Only together we will help the people and nations of the world rise stronger from the scourge of disease, just as our predecessors did 75 years ago from the ravages of war.

The author of this guest article, Liu Zhenmin, is UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, and head of the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA).

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