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UN Chief Explains How to Make 2021 A Year of Transformation

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By Radwan Jakeem

NEW YORK (IDN) – United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has told the UN’s 193 Member States that in the wake of an “annus horribilis” of death, disaster and despair, 2021 must be a year of transformation. “We need to move from death to health; from disaster to reconstruction; from despair to hope; from business as usual to transformation.”

Mr Guterres outlined his four priorities for the months ahead. Now is the time to secure the well-being of people, economies, societies and the planet, he accentuated, speaking from the podium in the General Assembly Hall in the UN Headquarters in New York on January 28.

“Our first priority for 2021 is to respond to COVID-19. Vaccines are the first great moral test before us. These must be seen as global public goods – people’s vaccines – available and affordable to all. The COVAX facility urgently needs more resources to procure and deliver vaccines for low- and middle-income countries, and to continue vital research and development, he said.

Despite the new engagement by major developed countries, the world is falling short. Vaccines are reaching a handful of countries quickly, while the poorest countries have almost none. Science is succeeding – but solidarity is failing.

“Governments have a responsibility to protect their populations, but COVID-19 cannot be beaten one country at a time,” Mr Guterres stressed. “If the virus is allowed to spread like wildfire in the Global South, it will inevitably mutate, it is mutating becoming more transmissible, more deadly and, eventually, more resistant to vaccines, ready to come back to hound the Global North.”

Moreover, recent studies have found that vaccine hoarding could cost the global economy up to $9.2 trillion – with almost half of that impact in the wealthiest countries themselves. That figure is over 340 times more than the $27 billion funding gap for the ACT-Accelerator. There is only one victor in a world of vaccine haves and vaccine have-nots: the virus itself. He called for six specific steps:

Prioritize healthcare workers and those most at risk everywhere. Protect health systems from collapse in the poorest countries. Ensure enough supply and fair distribution, including by having manufacturers prioritize supply to COVAX. Share excess doses with the COVAX facility. Make licenses widely available to scale up manufacturing. Boost vaccine confidence.

Second, the world cannot heal from the virus if economies are on life support. An inclusive and sustainable recovery must start now. We need massive investments in health systems everywhere. Universal health coverage. Mental health care. Social protection. Decent work. And children safely back in school. 

Developing countries have been drained of remittances, tourism revenues and earnings from commodities. Wealthier countries are implementing recovery and stimulus plans worth trillions of dollars. Yet the poorest countries have been able to spend only about 2 per cent of their small gross domestic product. 

Recovery must be inclusive. No country should be forced to choose between providing basic services and servicing their debts. “The High-Level events I convened last year with the Prime Ministers of Canada and Jamaica highlighted the urgent need for a quantum leap in financial support,” Mr Guterres said.

Lead in financial support, he said means an expansion of the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative, debt relief for all developing and middle-income countries that need it, increased resources for multilateral financial institutions, and a new allocation of Special Drawing Rights to the benefit of developing countries.

Furthermore, a voluntary reallocation of unused Special Drawing Rights is required. Liquidity is crucial to prevent debt defaults. Recovery must also be sustainable – embracing renewable energy, and green and resilient infrastructure. Otherwise, we will lock in harmful practices for decades to come.

“The 2030 Agenda points the way. A sustainable and inclusive recovery is possible. We must make it happen.Together.”

Our third priority must therefore be making peace with nature. 2021 is a critical year for climate and biodiversity. Last month, he called on all Member States to declare a climate emergency in their countries. “Today, I call on the international community to reach five key milestones by COP26 in November.”

First, let’s keep building the global coalition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. The coalition now represents 70 per cent of the world economy and 65 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions. In the year ahead, let’s ensure it covers at least 90 per cent of emissions.

G20 countries and main emitters must lead the way. “I call on every city, company and financial institution to adopt concrete roadmaps with clear intermediary milestones to get to carbon neutrality by 2050.” Key sectors such as shipping, aviation, industry and agriculture must do the same.

Second, Governments must submit Nationally Determined Contributions to cut global emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 compared with 2010 levels.

Third, we need to achieve a breakthrough on adaptation. Adaptation cannot be the forgotten component of climate action. Donors and multilateral development banks should increase the share of adaptation finance from 20 to at least 50 per cent by 2024.

Fourth, meet all finance commitments. Developed countries must fulfil their pledge to mobilize $100 billion annually for climate action in developing countries and it is not yet happening. This should include full capitalization of the Green Climate Fund. 

All development banks should align their portfolios with the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals by 2024, and help mobilize private finance and investment through guarantees and partnerships. “This will shift billions of financial flows.” The UN-convened Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance and Global Investors for Sustainable Development Alliance are critical to this effort.

Fifth, adopt transformational policies. It is time to:

  • Put a price on carbon.
  • Stop building new coal power plants.
  • Phase out coal in OECD countries by 2030, and everywhere else by 2040. Phase out fossil fuel finance, starting with the overseas financing of coal. End subsidies to fossil fuels.
  • Shift the tax burden from income to carbon, from taxpayers to polluters. Make climate-related financial risk disclosures mandatory. I
  • Integrate carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal policies and decisions.
  • And finally, promote, fund and implement just transition plans.

The UN Chief furthermore called for particular solidarity owed to the world’s small island developing states. Because some face an existential threat – their territories could disappear within our lifetimes. “We must never allow any Member State to be forced to fold its flag because of a problem that is within our power to fix.”

Our fourth priority is to tackle the pandemic of poverty and inequality, Mr Guterres said. More than 70 per cent of the world’s people are living with rising wealth inequality.

But wealth is not the only measure. People’s chances in life depend on their gender, race, family and ethnic background, whether they have a disability, and other factors. These injustices feed each other, cause people to lose trust in governments and institutions — and resound down the generations. The pandemic has made things worse. We see it in the way Covid-19 has preyed on the vulnerable and marginalized.

“This week’s report by Oxfam found also that simply the increase in the wealth of the ten richest men, and they are men, during the crisis would be enough to prevent anyone from falling into poverty because of the virus, and to pay for COVID-19 vaccinations for all everywhere.”

He added: “I continue to call for a New Social Contract within countries – to ensure that all people have prospects and protection.Education and digital technology must be the two great enablers and equalizers.”

Reforms to labour markets and forceful efforts against corruption, tax havens, money-laundering and illicit financial flows will also be critical.

“Societies must transform the world of care. Official Development Assistance remains a lifeline. It is time to redress the wrongs of the past and address the systemic injustices of our time. To keep our promise to leave no-one behind is possible. We must make it happen. Together.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 31 January 2021]

Photo: Two boys making paper masks at the Al-Tah IDP camp in Idlib Governorate, Syria. Credit: United Nations

IDN is flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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