21 May 2020

COVID-19 Exposing Inequalities, Cost of Weak Health, Social Protection Systems, Deputy Secretary-General Tells New York City Webinar Series

Following are UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed’s remarks, as prepared for delivery, to the webinar series organized by New York City on “Global Vision/Urban Action:  Collaborating for a Stronger Future”, in New York today:

I thank the City of New York for organizing this webinar.  I greet the honourable mayors, my colleagues from across the United Nations system and all experts present today.

Thank you for your leadership at the frontlines of the pandemic, ensuring that prevention efforts are robust; response is rapid, effective and at scale; and recovery is inclusive.  It is not easy.  Yet you are going above and beyond to meet the needs of your populations.

The pandemic is exacerbating vulnerabilities and exposing structural fragilities and inequalities.  It has reminded us, in the starkest way possible, of the price we pay for weaknesses in health systems, social protection, public services and environmental protection.  There is also a strong risk that COVID-19 will hinder our efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

As businesses fall into bankruptcy, unemployment is rising and people are falling back into poverty.  Indeed, the International Labour Organization expects that global working hours in the second quarter of 2020 will be 10.5 per cent lower than before the crisis.  The tax base is shrinking, which will inevitably lead to budget cuts.  When there are so many competing priorities, and a smaller budget envelope, public investment will suffer.

We also know that gender inequalities are rising.  In developing economies, 70 per cent of women who work are employed informally, putting them at a greater risk of losing their livelihoods.  Women are also a majority of health-care workers and thus at high risk of contracting the virus.  And with women now often trapped at home with their abusers, gender-based violence is itself becoming a pandemic.

The lockdown measures are also exacerbating cyberbullying and abuse of children online.  We are deeply concerned about the effects of COVID-19 on mental health and we will soon be releasing a policy analysis and recommendations to address these issues.  All of this confirms that the challenge of recovering from COVID-19 is daunting.

But investing in green recovery has important co-benefits — and many cities and local governments are leading the way.  We know that urban areas are being hit hard by the pandemic, but also that they are – more than ever – hubs of innovation, diversity and whole-of-society approaches.

I would like to outline some key areas where the local COVID-19 response can accelerate progress on the SDGs.  First, urban areas are where the co-benefits of well-considered response and recovery efforts are clear.  For example, in Nairobi, the city has been collaborating with UN-Habitat to build hand-washing facilities in slums and informal settlements.  This is also advancing our work more generally towards SDG 6, on access to water and sanitation.

Second, if we embed low-emission development, clean public transport and alternative means of mobility in recovery plans, we will advance on SDG 13 — climate action — and the goals of the Paris Agreement.  With that in mind, Milan is expanding bike lanes and improving walkability, thereby responding to the need for physically distanced mobility — while reducing reliance on gas-guzzling cars.

Third, if we address the issues of migration, the informal economy, and the creation of local jobs, and commit to strong social protection measures, we can advance SDG 8 on decent work and economic growth.  Many participants in the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group have been discussing the use of stimulus funds to retrofit buildings — creating jobs and improving energy efficiency concurrently.  I urge you to explore such opportunities wherever possible.

Fourth, if we accelerate urban food production, we can also advance on SDG 2 on reaching zero hunger.  Freetown has been supporting vulnerable communities by introducing basic urban farming.  Meanwhile, Singapore is increasing local food production.

Fifth, if we understand safe and adequate housing as part of both preventing and alleviating the pandemic, and work to address housing challenges, we can reach an important target of SDG 11 on building sustainable cities and communities.  Rio de Janeiro, for example, is temporarily accommodating at-risk inhabitants of favelas in hotels.  I hope that cities everywhere will take the pandemic as a stark call to action to prioritize the construction of affordable, adequate homes for all.

The Secretary-General and I have great confidence in the creativity, commitment and perseverance of local governments.  We know you are alert to any backsliding on the hard-won progress made on the SDGs thus far.  The United Nations Socioeconomic Impact Framework highlights the urgency of recovering better together.  Stimulus packages should support the transition to a healthier, green and circular economy, founded on sustainable consumption and production patterns.

We have a historic opportunity to work together for change, for macroeconomic choices and fiscal policies that are pro-poor and place peoples’ rights at the centre, and for greater investment in scaled-up, green and efficient public services.  This is also a watershed moment to use intergenerational engagement to put youth at the centre of COVID-19 responses, shaping the future of a world that may never be the same again.

The United Nations is committed to accompanying you on this journey.  It will not be easy, nor will it be quick.  But we must join forces and commit – once again – to the quest for a fairer and more sustainable future, and to leaving no one behind.

Thank you.

For information media. Not an official record.