The COVID-19 pandemic continues to highlight and deepen existing inequalities among and within countries, adversely impacting countries and groups already at greatest risk of being left behind.

In this edition of the Goal of the Month editorial, we look at the importance of Reducing Inequalities, examining some of the most pertinent sustainable development issues of our time – vaccine inequity, climate injustice, social and economic inequalities – as major stumbling blocks in our efforts to recover better.

The Vaccinated and the Unvaccinated

“None of us is safe, until all of us are safe. Yet some countries are reportedly making side deals exclusively for their own populations. Such “vaccinationalism” is not only unfair, it is self-defeating.”

UN Secretary-General  António Guterres

Today, the world has secured a little over 10 billion doses of the ten approved COVID-19 vaccines. As of 5 February, the majority of the vaccines were available in just 10 countries that account for almost 60 percent of the global GDP, says the World Health Organization (WHO). Around 130 countries, with 2.5 billion people, have yet to administer a single dose. Only one low-income country, Guinea, has received doses of the vaccine but has vaccinated about 25 people so far. 

“Science is succeeding but solidarity is failing,” warned the Secretary-General who has made the response to COVID-19 and the equitable access to vaccines the utmost priority for the United Nations in 2021.

The COVAX Facility for Equal Access

The Secretary-General continues to reiterate the importance of the COVAX facility – the only international mechanism with the largest vaccine portfolio that was established to ensure the global pooled procurement of vaccines needed for equitable access. 

Agreements may already be in place to secure more than two billion doses to cover at least 20 percent of the population of the 190 participating economies, many of them middle and low-income, but COVAX still needs $7.8 billion to procure and deliver the vaccines by the end of the year. 

“We need manufacturers to step up their commitment to work with the COVAX facility and countries around the world, in particular the world’s leading economies, to ensure enough supply and fair distribution,” added Mr. Guterres. 

Echoing his call, the head of WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has urged countries to share excess doses “once they have finished vaccinating health workers and older people” and manufacturers to share their data and technology.

In early February, WHO and partners announced their plans to help governments that have signed up to the COVAX facility prepare their vaccine distribution programmes to protect their most at risk population. Through the facility, countries will receive details on the vaccines they will receive between now and the end of June. 

Learn more about the status of all vaccines within WHO Emergency use Listing Procedure and the latest agreement between COVAX and Pfizer to expedite early availability of vaccines to lower-income countries.

#VForVaccinated – A Vaccine Confidence Campaign

A new global social media mobilization campaign, initiated by UNICEF, is asking people everywhere to be the living proof that vaccines are safe and effective. In January 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres kicked off the campaign after receiving his vaccination at the Adlai E. Stevenson High School in New York City Borough of The Bronx. 

Holding up a V for Vaccinated sign, he expressed his gratitude “to everyone who has worked to safeguard communities during this pandemic.” He added that now we must get to work “to make sure the vaccine is available to everyone, everywhere.”

Misinformation Challenges Global Vaccine Efforts

“Let’s give science the credit that it deserves and the trust that it deserves.”

— Melissa Fleming, UN Under-Secretary-General for Global Communication

The head of Global Communications at the United Nations, Melissa Fleming, recently spoke to the Chief Medical Officer at WebMD about the “polluted” media environment and the critical role communications plays in tackling vaccine misinformation, and boosting vaccine equity and confidence.

Social Justice

Whilst technological innovation can support economic growth, offering new possibilities in fields such as health care, education, communication and productivity, there is also evidence that it can lead to increased wage inequality, and displace workers. Rapid advances and new technology has the potential to eliminate entire categories of jobs but, equally generate new jobs and innovations.

As the United Nations marks World Day of Social Justice on 20 February, the International Labour Organization will present its latest flagship report – World Employment and Social Outlook 2021 – which looks at the role of digital labour platforms in transitioning the world of work. Ahead of the launch, on 17 February, the 59th session of the UN Commission for Social Development will conclude its work on the role of digital technologies in social development and well-being of all, giving particular attention to disadvantaged, marginalized or vulnerable groups and communities. 

Read the UN Secretary-General’s recent report on the issue.

Economic Equity

The latest UN World Economic Situation and Prospects report says that massive and timely stimulus measures, amounting to US$12.7 trillion, prevented a total collapse of the world economy and averted a Great Depression. However, stark disparity in the size of the stimulus packages rolled out by developed countries – at nearly 580 times higher than those of least developed countries – and developing countries have put them on different trajectories of recovery. 

Fair Finance: How can the global inequality gap be narrowed?

A family from the Hmong ethnic minority in Vietnam. UNICEF/Truong Viet Hung

UN News speaks to Hiro Mizuno, the newly-appointed UN Special Envoy on Innovative Finance and Sustainable Investments, about how the financial sector can help to create a fairer, more equitable world.

Fair Finance: The women entrepreneurs lifting communities out of poverty

The United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) is supporting women’s economic empowerment in the world’s 47 Least Developed Countries (LDCs). UNCDF

Helping women start and grow businesses in the world’s poorest countries is a path to lifting them and their families out of poverty, the high-profile businesswoman, and new UN Capital Development Fund Goodwill Ambassador Sonia Gardner, tells UN News, in the second of the two part series on Fair Finance.

Environmental Justice

Poor and marginalized communities are among those worst impacted by environmental harms such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution that threaten full and effective enjoyment of all human rights, warn the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and Human Rights Office. 

Ahead of the annual UN Environment Assembly – when the world’s highest-level decision-making body on the environment meets – from 22 to 23 February, we look at how many communities at the forefront of climate change, enduring extreme weather, rising sea levels, and pollution, are seeking justice through litigation. Ahead of the Assembly, UNEP will release its first synthesis report on Making Peace with Nature – a scientific blueprint to tackle the world’s climate, biodiversity and pollution emergencies.

In battle against climate change, courts become a new frontier

UNEP’s new report on Global Climate Litigation finds that legal cases against climate change, including from children and indigenous groups, have nearly doubled over the last three years and are increasingly compelling governments and companies to implement their climate commitments, as well as pursue more ambitious climate change mitigation and adaptation goals. Read the story to learn more about the rising trend of climate litigation.

Learn more about UNEP’s Six Sector Solution to Climate Change – a guide that looks at the challenges and opportunities for climate action in the sectors such as energy, agriculture and transportation.

Food Security

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, an estimated one third of all food produced globally is lost or goes to waste. This is equal to around 1 .3 billion tons per year. Yet, communities across the world continue to face a food security crisis. 

Over 690 million people worldwide experience hunger on a daily basis. This has only been exacerbated by the impacts of COVID-19, which threatens to double the number of people facing acute food insecurity.

Ahead of the 2021 Food Systems Summit, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Summit, Agnes Kalibata, looks at how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our failing food systems, especially in places where inequality is most prevalent.

We must give women a chance to build back a better food system

Farmer attends to her papaya crop. USDA/Flickr

“Addressing gender inequity must be central to the response to food insecurity,” says Special Envoy Agnes Kalibata, highlighting the fact that although the agricultural workforce is mostly made up of women, existing institutional biases often prevent them from having access to land rights, financing tools and training opportunities, holding them back from employment and leadership. 

Read her opinion piece on why bolstering women’s role in the food system and supporting them as change agents can have broad and lasting benefits for our communities and environment.

Ending Racism, Xenophobia and Discrimination

Where human rights were weak, the pandemic has made them weaker, says the UN Human Rights Office, pointing out that COVID-19 did not invent or redraw society’s fault lines, it merely laid them bare for all to see.

“The pandemic clearly demonstrates that respect for human rights is beneficial to everyone. Universal health care, universal social protections, and the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – online and offline – contribute to protecting our well-being, and promoting our shared interests,” stressed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. 

Here is a list of forthcoming human rights events:

Global leaders will meet to address the links between structural racism, inequalities and the Sustainable Development Goals. This year also marks the 20th anniversary of the 2001 UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban, South Africa.

The month-long annual session of the Human Rights Council meets to address an array of human rights concerns and policies as well as to review the status of human rights across the globe. Panel discussions are expected to focus on the question of the death penalty, poverty alleviation, the rights of children and persons with disabilities as well as the ongoing International Decade for People of African Descent. 

Established to remember the tragic massacre in Sharpeville, South Africa, when nearly 70 people were killed when police deliberately opened fire during a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960, the International Day calls for solidarity with people who have and/or are still struggling against racism and racial discrimination globally.

Other Events

In the coming weeks, the United Nations will commemorate the invaluable role women play in our efforts to cope and recover from the devastating effects of the pandemic, as leaders in science and politics. Look out for the events below ahead of March’s Goal of the Month editorial which will focus on Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.

Recent months have clearly demonstrated the critical role of women researchers in different stages of the fight against COVID-19, from advancing the knowledge on the virus to developing techniques for testing and developing vaccines against the virus.

The international community will mark the International Day of Women and Girls in Science under the theme, “Women Scientists at the Forefront of the Fight against COVID-19,” and at an event featuring female scientists from around the world.

According to UN Women, the majority of countries that have been more successful in stemming the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic and responding to its health and broader socio-economic impacts, including Denmark, Ethiopia, New Zealand and Slovakia, are headed by women. 

This forthcoming International Women’s Day, UN Women will celebrate “Women in Leadership” and their efforts to achieve an equal future in a COVID-19 world.