Opinion: Making UNGA matter in the age of pandemic

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The 69th United Nations General Assembly in 2014. Photo by: Crown copyright / Number 10 / Arron Hoare / CC BY-NC-ND

This year, the United Nations turns 75. Birthdays are better celebrated in person, so the 2020 U.N. General Assembly is shaping up to be a subdued affair.

COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc around the world, forcing heads of state to gather in cyberspace instead of Turtle Bay. But this can’t be an excuse for a lack of action; too much is at stake. When they take the virtual stage, world leaders should eschew diplomatic platitudes in favor of meaningful commitments to protect the world’s most vulnerable populations in the face of the pandemic.

The scope of the challenge is breathtaking. Across the globe, essential medical supplies remain in short supply. Public health systems in fragile states wracked by violence are barely functional. Movement restrictions and market closures are destroying livelihoods and pushing economies into free fall. Food insecurity is spiking. Millions dispossessed have been left to fend for themselves. Just last week, the U.N. secretary-general dubbed the coronavirus “the No. 1 global security threat in our world today.”

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By any measure, the global response has fallen short. Mitigation, containment, and relief efforts are massively under-resourced. The U.N. humanitarian appeal for the pandemic calls for $10.3 billion, yet donors have pledged only $2.7 billion. Instead, the world’s richest countries continue to hoard equipment and therapies and corner the market on future vaccines. Indeed, “vaccine nationalism” may keep the latter out of reach for the world’s poor for years.

A big part of the problem remains the lack of global leadership. Powerful countries like China and the U.S. have chosen to attack each other rather than cooperate in the face of the shared threat.

Every year, world leaders are given 15 minutes to address UNGA. If the past is prologue, U.S. President Donald Trump will squander his time blaming others for America’s woes. So other leaders will need to step up and take on the greatest challenge the world body has ever faced. Fortunately, there is a road map for what needs to be done.

First, donor governments need to double down on the public health response in humanitarian crisis zones. This includes the provision of essential medical supplies like personal protective and diagnostic equipment. To make this happen, donors need to fully fund the U.N. humanitarian appeal. Governments in crisis zones will also need to commit to opening humanitarian corridors, extend special visas for essential humanitarian personnel, and fast-track procedures for aid delivery.

Second, leaders must confront the secondary consequences of the pandemic, especially the global food crisis and the rise of gender-based violence. The U.N. needs significant funding to respond to the horrific wave of violence against women that has accompanied the closures and lockdowns. The World Food Programme estimates that the number of acutely food-insecure people will nearly double from 149 million before COVID-19 to 270 million. The agency has asked for almost $5 billion to launch the biggest mobilization in its history.

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Third, countries hosting refugees or other displaced and highly vulnerable populations must include them in their national responses to COVID-19. The economic collapse brought on by the pandemic disproportionately impacts refugees, as does rising xenophobia in host communities.

Leaders should commit to ensure that these people can access aid and social protection schemes. The World Bank and other international financial institutions are mobilizing billions of dollars in financing to support many of these countries. These intuitions can incentivize governments to include the vulnerable in the programs they underwrite.

Finally, member states should commit to ensure access to a future vaccine for the most vulnerable. Such support should flow to COVAX — an international initiative to develop and equitably distribute a “people’s vaccine” for COVID-19. Its goal is to deliver 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, including to 92 low- and middle-income countries.

However, the effort remains dangerously underfunded. Over 170 countries have committed to participate in COVAX. But key donors like the U.S., Germany, and France remain on the sidelines. In their speeches, heads of state from wealthy countries should showcase a significant and binding pledge to this World Health Organization-led initiative.

Richard Holbrooke, a former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., famously said that "blaming the United Nations when things go wrong is like blaming Madison Square Garden when the Knicks play badly." At this year’s 75th UNGA, world leaders need to play for keeps in confronting the pandemic. The lives and livelihoods of millions depend on it.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Hardin Lang

    Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International. He is a veteran of six United Nations peacekeeping and humanitarian field missions.