9 April 2020
ESCWA Unveils Emergency Response to Mitigate COVID Impacts in Arab Region
UN Photo/Evan Schneider
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ESCWA Executive Secretary Rola Dashti said COVID-19 is an “unprecedented threat that calls for unprecedented solidarity”.

Arab countries may lose more than USD 42 billion in income in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, exacerbated by a significant drop in oil prices.

Policy proposals include a regional social solidarity fund that supports Arab vulnerable countries and LDCs to provide relief during food shortages and health emergencies.

The UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) has published a regional emergency response to mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The document includes a series of national- and regional-level policy proposals.

Speaking about the emergency response on 25 March 2020, ESCWA Executive Secretary Rola Dashti warned that “this unprecedented threat calls for unprecedented solidarity.” Highlighting a number of the policy proposals, she underscored the need for: a regional social solidarity fund that supports Arab vulnerable countries and least developed countries (LDCs) to provide relief during food shortages and health emergencies; regional stakeholders and the global community to declare a humanitarian truce and renew efforts to achieve peace in the region; and lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip, sanctions on some Arab countries, and restrictions on materials critical to fight the pandemic.

In addition, she called on existing regional funds to channel investments to the health sector and to support small and medium enterprises (SMEs). She suggested that regional development and multilateral financial institutions consider debt deferral and reduction mechanisms.

The emergency response calls for a regional platform to reduce domestic violence, which is increasing as a result of home confinement.

The emergency response calls for other regional actions, including: sustaining official development assistance (ODA) to avoid shortfalls in health spending; regional specialized Arab funds to encourage financial support under Aid for Trade initiatives; the World Trade Organization (WTO) to issue a ministerial decision to enable parallel imports of medication and vaccines in developing countries; a regional platform to reduce domestic violence, which is increasing as as result of home confinement during the pandemic; and a regional cooperative framework to identify and disseminate best practices for the safe and sustainable management and disposal of bleaches, disinfectants, and medical and hazardous waste.

At the national level, emergency policy responses include fiscal measures such as: enhancing social protection by extending the coverage of cash transfers, food aid, unemployment benefits, and paid sick leave protection; deferring loans and mortgages, temporarily suspending government fees, and providing tax relief; supporting impacted businesses to reduce layoffs and stimulate the economy by, among others, providing wage subsidies to maintain workers on payrolls; and increasing demand and job creation through government spending on labor-intensive projects and procurement.

Proposed social solidarity measures include: ensuring access to affordable food and necessities, and preventing hoarding and price gouging; implementing a system for the elderly and disabled who have limited or no social protection; ensuring migrants get tested and treated; and prioritizing health worker access to personal protective equipment.

Regarding sustainability and food security, the emergency response highlights measures related to, among others: an economic stimulus that targets low-emission, energy-efficient and climate-resilient development pathways; and sustainable energy options when establishing decentralized COVID-19 testing and treatment facilities.

On institutional strengthening and preparedness, measures include partnerships with civil society to ensure service delivery and outreach to vulnerable groups, as well as working with local universities and research centers to harness open data and big data for medical purposes, social distancing and food supply.

The publication also calls for: an emergency fund sponsored by the private sector to support government actions; large corporations to limit layoffs and integrate SMEs in their value chains; private banks to provide relief from interest payments during the crisis; and private hospitals and health-care providers to provide free tests and treatment for the virus.

Several Arab countries have already provided stimulus packages to support citizens and strengthen businesses during the pandemic. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced a USD 27 billion stimulus plan to boost the economy, including water and electricity subsidies. Oman announced a USD 20 billion incentive package for financial institutions to combat the effects of COVID-19 on the local economy.

Based on an impact assessment for the region, Arab countries could lose more than USD 42 billion in income in 2020 as a result of the pandemic, exacerbated by a decrease in oil prices. In addition: exports are expected to decline by USD 28 billion; 1.7 million jobs could be lost in 2020; and women in the region face further vulnerabilities due to COVID-19, as most health care workers are women, and domestic violence is increasing with home confinement. [Publication: Regional Emergency Response to Mitigate the Impact of COVID-19] [Statement by ESCWA Executive Secretary]

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