More from UNDESA Vol 24, No. 09 - September 2020

A healthy and green recovery: the future we want

By Poorvaprabha Patil, President of the Medical Students Association of India, and Sophie Gepp, Health for Future

The COVID-19 pandemic has been the worst health crisis since the Spanish Flu of 1918. With over 844,000 deaths, as of 30th August 2020, and slowing economies due to strict quarantine measures, human lives have been disrupted in more ways than one. On the flip side, the pandemic has brought out in bright light the failures of our existing systems and misplaced priorities of many governments across the world. While we head to a “new normal” after the pandemic, we have the opportunity to ask ourselves which direction our pre-pandemic “normal” was driving us in. And find a “new normal” that not only internalizes the ideals of the SDGs and leaving no one behind, but also responds to the next imminent threat that the world faces- climate change.

There are lessons from COVID-19 for the climate crisis that we cannot overlook. We learned how we need to act in solidarity, between generations, across borders and differences. We learned that we are capable of acting and adapting in the face of a crisis. We learned the importance of science and timely action and the need for prevention. And we learned that human health and the state of the ecosystems we live in are inextricably linked. These are the lessons we should not, must not forget for the other, imminent crisis we are facing: the climate crisis.

In his press conference on 21st August 2020, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the recovery from COVID-19 a “once-in-a-century opportunity to shape the world our children will inherit”. But make no mistake: with regards to the climate crisis, it is not only a once-in-a-century opportunity, it is likely our last shot. With that urgency in mind, it is now our time to collectively reimagine what we want the post-COVID world to look like. Many voices have called for “building back better”. WHO has released a manifesto, with “prescriptions for a healthy and green recovery from COVID-19”. After clapping for health workers all over the world, now it is time to listen to what health professionals worldwide are demanding for a healthier future.

Many solutions already exist, with benefits to both – human health and the climate. Phasing out fossil fuels protects the climate and reduces the negative health effects of air pollution. Reducing car traffic in cities and increasing cycling or walking reduces air pollution, noise and road-traffic accidents, and provides health benefits through physical activity. If we put together our efforts and all our investments towards building a healthy, green future, imagine what the “new normal” could look like!

As young people who will live through the consequences of the climate crisis if it’s not averted, we imagine a post-COVID world that’s equipped to face these challenges. A future with the SDGs, sustainability and climate action at the centre, with priorities that serve all of humankind and not just a subset, is the only possible future we have.

To actualize a future like that, we need to:

  1. 1. Listen to science and act. Now.

It’s not the dearth of scientific data that keeps us from moving in the right direction, but the lack of action. Even before COVID-19, scientists warned about the pandemic potential of zoonotic diseases and the increased risk due to destruction of habitat and biodiversity loss – we just weren’t listening. Furthermore, we witnessed blatant disregard for scientific facts and evidence in some parts of the world, and the aftermath of those actions. The climate crisis isn’t unannounced. We do not have the time to debate over climate change being “real” or not, or the space for empty promises. We and our governments need to act now, in the direction of science. And we, as citizens, need to hold them accountable.

  1. 2. Identify vulnerabilities and reduce inequalities

Climate change is the 21st century’s biggest threat to global health, and human life at large. Like COVID-19, it will – and has started to – impact the most vulnerable. The fabric of a healthy and safe society can only be weaved by equitable solutions, and policies that address these vulnerabilities, especially in times of crisis. As leaders of today and the future, the world we strive to create is one where we realize the true essence of leaving no one behind, using the blueprint that the SDGs provide us.

  1. 3. Understand that the SDGs aren’t optional

While some countries have made progress on “some SDGs” that are most convenient to their agendas, we are far from realizing them. With the opportunity of a green, healthy recovery out of a world gripped by COVID 19, comes the opportunity – and obligation – to truly start realizing the importance and interlinkages between all 17 SDGs for a safe and healthy world capable of averting the climate crisis. There is no space to treat the SDGs like a list of 17 “options” to choose from.

  1. 4. Act together

Global crises need global responses. Not only do we need to act beyond borders, we also need to act beyond age, race, colour, caste, nationality, political affiliations, sexuality, gender orientation and other differences. Climate change will impact us all.

Intergenerational leadership is the key to a sustainable future. Just like flattening the curve included all generations, and many young people stayed home and away from beloved ones to protect them, we now need all generations to come together to protect our future.

*The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of UN DESA.

17 goals in numbers

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, progress towards the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) had been uneven. Indeed, accelerated actions were needed in most areas. Nonetheless, gains were being made in a number of areas:

  • The global maternal mortality ratio had declined by 38 percent and the under-5 mortality rate had fallen by almost 50 percent since 2000.
  • Over 1 billion people had gained access to electricity between 2010 and 2018.
  • In 2019, almost the entire world population (97 per acent) lived within reach of a mobile cellular signal, and 93 per cent lived within reach of a mobile-broadband signal.
  • Countries were developing national policies to support sustainable development and signing international environmental protection agreements.

However, progress had either stalled or been reversed in other areas:

  • The number of persons suffering from hunger and food insecurity was on the rise.  Almost 690 million people were undernourished and 2 billion people were affected by moderate or severe food insecurity in 2019.
  • Climate change was occurring much more quickly than anticipated. The year 2019 was the second warmest on record and the end of the warmest decade of 2010 to 2019.
  • And inequality continued to increase within and among countries. Young workers were twice as likely to live in extreme poverty than adult workers and 85 per cent people without access to electricity lived in rural areas.

COVID-19 is derailing the efforts on the implementations of the SDGs and threatening the achievements already made in many areas.

  • COVID-19 is expected to push 71 million people back into extreme poverty and cause 132 million more people to suffer from undernourishment in 2020.
  • Illness and deaths from communicable diseases will spike. For example, service cancellations would lead to a 100 per cent increase in malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.
  • School closures have kept up to 90 per cent of all students out of school, reversing years of progress on education and remote learning remains out of reach for at least 500 million students.
  • The world is also facing the worst economic recession since the Great Depression with GDP per capita expected to decline by 4.2 per cent in 2020.
  • COVID-19 could cause the equivalent of 400 million job losses globally in the second quarter of 2020.
  • While vulnerable groups are being hit hardest by the pandemic including older persons, persons with disabilities, children, women and migrants and refugees. For example, in some countries, violence against women and girls has increased by 30 per cent during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns.

Access more data and information on the indicators for all the SDGs in the SDG Progress Report 2020.

Amid a global collapse, regional trade may be the best way forward

It no longer surprises us to find products from the farthest corners of the world in our local grocery stores or to visit these same corners as tourists. International trade gives consumers and countries the opportunity to access goods and services either entirely unavailable domestically or only at a higher cost. It is an essential part of countries’ economic activity. For many developing countries, it is also a path to economic development.

But this path has now become more challenging as the COVID-19 pandemic slashes global trade by magnitudes surpassing even those seen during the 2008 global financial crisis. Tourism, considered part of trade in services, is experiencing an unprecedented collapse. Trade in developing countries has dropped sharply. Exports have decreased due to lower demand in destination markets, while currency depreciation, shortage of foreign currency and concerns over rising debt have contributed to lower imports.

While projections point to a limited recovery in 2021, the global trade environment will remain highly uncertain for the next few years. Trade growth had already been slowing down for about a decade before the pandemic. Last year, trade volumes contracted for the first time since the global financial crisis, both globally and in developing countries. Systemic issues, such as subdued demand and protectionist policies, have weakened trade activity.

The persistent headwinds to global trade have important economic implications. Investment and innovation may be affected as firms consider these jointly with trade participation. This, in turn, may constrain productivity growth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led many firms to rethink production processes and the configuration of global value chains. At the same time, initiatives such as the African Continental Free Trade Agreement illustrate how developing countries have already embarked on strengthening regional trade ties. Regional integration can help shield economies from global economic volatility, decrease supply disruptions, for example of medical equipment, and diversify exports. Amidst slowing global trade, a recalibration towards more regional trade may be the best way forward for many developing economies.

Get more details in the September Monthly Briefing on the World Economic Situation and Prospects published on 1 September.

From local to global – youth take action

“Young people are usually the first responders, and have always been on the frontlines,” said Lynrose Jane Genon, member of Young Women Leaders for Peace in the Philippines, in the podcast “From local to global – youth taking action”, released on International Youth Day on 12 August. “When young people are involved, the response to solving local and global challenges is more holistic, it is more effective, and it is more resisting,” she added.

In the year the United Nations turns 75, and with only 10 years remaining to make the 2030 Agenda a reality, the international day was celebrated under the theme “Youth Engagement for Global Action”.

In partnership with the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development (IANYD) Youth Caucus and Create2030, UN DESA produced a 3-part podcast discussion to commemorate the day. This lively chat drew on the experiences of young people, providing valuable lessons on how youth representation and participation in politics can be enhanced when responding to challenges at the local, national and global levels.

The challenges humanity faces, including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, call for concerted global action and the meaningful engagement of young people to find effective solutions. Yet, youth are still conspicuously missing from parliamentary representation. A third of countries do not allow persons under 25 to run for parliament, leaving youth disenchanted with politics and distanced from the decision-making processes that directly effect their lives and communities.

Participants in the 2020 International Youth Day celebrated the contribution young people can make in multilateral and national processes. To harness this, the event also called for the inclusion and participation of young people in policymaking to foster more inclusive and sustainable policies and restore trust in public institutions.

In addition, a large number of UN entities, Member States and youth organizations celebrated the day with independently organized events recognizing the importance of youth participation in all parts of society.

For more information: International Youth Day

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