A global response

Updated 05 Aug 2020


The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.
The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.

KNOWING no boundaries, Covid-19 has caused a global health crisis and exposed the vulnerabilities of healthcare systems, allowing little time to organise effective response measures. An avalanche of cases has overwhelmed healthcare structures in developed countries. In developing nations with long neglected public health sectors, the pandemic is leading to mayhem due to a shortage of medical equipment and personnel, and obsolete infrastructures.

The endeavour to save lives through lockdowns has inflicted huge economic and human suffering. Millions have lost jobs. Efforts to alleviate poverty and reduce hunger have been impaired. Financial markets have been shaken. Developmental gains have been reversed, and the future of millions of poor thrown into uncertainty.

A recent research study by King’s College London and the Australian National University, published by the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research, starkly warns that an additional 500 million people in developing countries could be pushed into poverty because of the economic crunch of the global pandemic. The scramble to mitigate the pandemic underscores the need for affordable and accessible healthcare for all, since vulnerable communities are disproportionately impacted in such catastrophic situations. Poverty and growing inequalities have exposed the failings of the current development model.

The 2030 agenda for sustainable development was adopted in 2015 as an integrated response to poverty, environmental degradation, hunger and disease. Its 17 Sustainable Development Goals provide a roadmap to development that leaves no one behind. Since then, an entirely new international architecture has evolved for its implementation. But despite some progress, achieving the SDGs remains a challenging goal.

Today’s challenges need inclusive multilateralism.

Climate change poses an existential threat to humanity, yet unabated carbon emissions make the targets of the Paris Agreement more elusive today than when it was signed in 2015. Our unsustainable patterns of consumption and production disregard Earth’s regenerative capacity. Healthy ecosystems provide a natural shield against the spread of pathogens, yet science suggests that Earth’s ecosystems are nearing critical levels of depletion. The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warned last year about the deteriorating health of Earth due to indiscriminate and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. The well-being of humanity, its economic development and a healthy environment ultimately depend upon our ability to decouple economic growth and social advancement from the increasing use of natural resources.

Swift behavioural change is necessary to address environmental degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change. That change can start with each of us changing our lifestyles and the decisions we make as consumers. Sustainable lifestyles mean doing more and better with less; more goods and services, with less impact in terms of resource use, environmental degradation, waste and pollution.

To recover from the impacts of the pandemic, nations need to reassess their development options and priorities. A ‘green’ economic recovery will be key to harnessing science, technology, finance and innovation in partnership with the private sector, industry and civil society. UN Secretary General António Guterres has urged countries to “turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future” through a six-point plan, with emphasis on delivering new jobs and businesses through a clean, green transition; using fiscal firepower to drive the shift towards a greener economy; making societies and people more resilient; incorporating climate risks and opportunities into policymaking; and the “need to work together as an international community”.

Covid-19, climate change and poverty are global issues warranting global responses. The 2030 agenda symbolises the world’s commitment to collaborate on efforts to address humanity’s biggest challenges. However, these efforts will only be successful when underpinned by an inclusive collaboration among governments, regional cooperation organisations, economic and political entities, scientists, industry, private sector and civil society, to name a few.

There are important lessons to be learned from this pandemic. Covid-19 has shown how we truly are one people and that we must come together to face our challenges, be it the visible threat of the virus or the existential threat of climate change.

Seventy-five years since it was established, the UN’s role will be vital in enabling the international community to work together to address global issues and make the world a better place for all. If there was ever a time to strengthen multilateralism and promote multilateral cooperation for human well-being, it is now.

The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.

Published in Dawn, June 3rd, 2020