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COVID-19 pandemic exposes global ‘frailties and inequalities’: UN deputy chief

Speaking to UN News, Amina Mohammed said that the global crisis unleashed by the virus could and should kickstart efforts to reach the Sustainable Development Goals, the 17 globally agreed targets to eradicate poverty, create a more equal and peaceful world and protect the planet.

UN News: How concerned are you that global inequalities will deepen as a result of the coronavirus pandemic?

Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed delivers the keynote address at the opening of the 6th African Regional Forum on Sustainable Development in Zimbabwe., by UN Photo/Daniel Getachew

UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed: I am extremely concerned. COVID-19 is a threat multiplier. We have a health emergency, a humanitarian emergency and now a development emergency. These emergencies are compounding existing inequalities. In advanced economies, we’re seeing higher rates of mortality among already marginalized groups. And in developing countries, the crisis will hit vulnerable populations even harder. 

Weak health systems won’t be able to cope. Incomplete social protection systems risk seeing millions fall back into poverty. And governments with little economic firepower will not be able to cushion the impacts or recover quickly. Every single person will be affected by this pandemic. 

And no one will be able to get through this alone. We will need an extraordinary showing of solidarity for all people to come out of COVID-19 stronger or we risk huge populations falling further behind. Any deepening of the divides risks people falling into poverty—losing hard won gains and weakening our systems to respond to the next emergency. 

To what extent do you think COVID-19 will exacerbate already dire poverty levels in the developing world?

We are learning on so many levels how this pandemic is exposing the frailties and inequalities of our societies. The IMF is projecting that the global economy will contract sharply by -3 per cent this year.  The ILO is warning that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy—nearly half of the global workforce—stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed. And remittances to developing countries have already fallen by 20 per cent. 

All of this will feed into higher rates of poverty. In fact, the World Bank has estimated that some 49 million people could fall back into extreme poverty.

But this is not inevitable. We have the tools available globally to provide developing countries with the fiscal space and the resources needed to support the incomes of the poorest; to protect their communities from the worst effects and to be ready for recovery.

And building on this, we can recover better— increasing the coverage of essential services; generating green jobs for a green recovery. 

Do you expect women to be disproportionally affected by the pandemic?

Outreach workers in Syria say they are worried about the vulnerability of women and girls under curfew., by © UNFPA Syria

Women are on the front lines of COVID-19. Saving lives as first responders, finding solutions as innovators, standing up to the pandemic as political leaders. 

More men are dying from the virus than women, but women are bearing the brunt of this pandemic in other ways. Women make up nearly 60 per cent of the informal economy, they earn less and are at greater risk of falling into poverty. They are the majority of the world’s older people, more likely to live alone and less likely to have access to the internet or mobile phones thus increasing their risk of isolation.

We’ve seen a terrifying increase in violence against women. We know that staying at home is fostering the perfect storm for domestic violence. 

We know that gender equality and women’s rights are essential to building a better future for everyone. And I’ve been inspired by women leaders who have stepped up to face the pandemic and are rising to for all to come together in solidarity. 

What concerns do you have about development funding from richer nations decreasing as the global economy falters?

Right now, we are not seeing a drop in funding. The UN is crystal clear that the world’s response is only as strong as the weakest health system. And governments recognize that the virus does not respect borders. They also know that if the virus spreads rapidly to contexts affected by humanitarian crises, or in a number of developing countries, then the risks of political instability, of conflict, or of displacement, are very real. No one stands to benefit from this.

There may be short-term benefits for the climate during this crisis but how will action to reduce climate change, which is central to poverty reduction, be affected in the long term?

Global emissions are forecast to decline by around 6 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we know that the economic and industrial downturn as a result of the coronavirus pandemic is not a substitute for sustained climate action. Economies can grow, and jobs created alongside ambitious climate action, if the right investments are made now to accelerate the decarbonization of the global economies. We need sustained climate action for many years to come to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.  

Is it possible to turn crisis into a catalyst for achieving goals and reducing inequalities?

Absolutely. And in some respects, there is no choice here. We cannot afford to go back to the world we had before this crisis. That would mean leaving unaddressed the vulnerabilities and fragilities that this crisis has brought into plain sight: massive underinvestment in health and social protection; massive global and local inequalities; the onward march towards the destruction of nature and climate catastrophe; the erosion of democratic norms that are core to protecting rights and ensuring social cohesion.

We have a unique opportunity now, to leverage this crisis to kickstart a Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Is the timetable for realizing the goals which will help to reduce inequality now unrealistic?

This crisis has already demonstrated that massive change can be brought about if there is political will and unity of purpose. The SDGs are no longer an aspirational set of goals for some distant future. They are the minimum we need to secure a safer, more just and more sustainable world for all. If leaders from across society attach the same level of importance and urgency to the fight against poverty, hunger, and climate change, we will find success in this Decade of Action on the SDGs.

United Nations
SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities

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