Pandemic's promise: COVID-19 presents moment to build back better

A global economy in trouble can be fertile ground for economic, environmental and social justice, UN panel stresses.

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    A demonstrator lies on the ground to block a road after overnight protests against fall in Lebanese pound and mounting economic hardship, in Sidon, Lebanon [File: Ali Hashisho/Reuters]
    A demonstrator lies on the ground to block a road after overnight protests against fall in Lebanese pound and mounting economic hardship, in Sidon, Lebanon [File: Ali Hashisho/Reuters]

    While the coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on the world economy, exposing its many persistent injustices, it may also present a unique opportunity to build back better, speakers told a high-level panel held by the United Nations on Tuesday.

    "After COVID-19, nothing will be the same but things can be much better," Inger Andersen, executive director at the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP), said during the discussion on People and the Planet: How can we shape the future of development in a post-COVID-19 World?

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    The most vulnerable and marginalised in both developed and developing countries continue to be hit the hardest by the pandemic's wrath. COVID-19 has also spotlighted the holes and deficiencies in global food networks, supply chains, debt and tax structures and public health.

    As governments worldwide pass economic initiatives to assist people and businesses stay afloat, some countries like the United Kingdom, France and Pakistan have included "green" initiatives in their COVID-19 stimulus packages to move the climate agenda forward.

    But others - including Syria, the Central African Republic, Libya, Yemen, and Lebanon - gripped with war, protracted security challenges, and economic woes, simply lack the fiscal space to embark on any forward-looking initiatives.

    "In Lebanon, 'green' is not at the top of our agenda," Raya Haffar El Hassan, former minister of finance and interior affairs of Lebanon, told the panel. "Lebanon has so much it is struggling with as it goes through one of the most profoundly challenging moments in its history."

    Indeed, much of modern development has essentially been a trade-off - the present against the future, the rich against the poor, people against nature - which legitimises those who are doing quite well at the expense of those who are losing out and have no seat at the table, Achim Steiner, head of UN Development Programme (UNDP) said.

    "The age of the trade-off is over," Steiner stressed.

    The pandemic presents a moment of truth and clarity and the examination of critical issues that have been ignored for too long. For example, why is it that in Africa there are still 600 million people who do not have access to electricity, Steiner asked, also adding: "Policy matters."

    In developed countries, the inequities that have festered for decades and even generations have been brought to the forefront by the pandemic.

    UNEP's Andersen said the Black Lives Matter movement has recognised how unequal societies are.

    "You and I and everyone else has a duty to inform ourselves because that is how we impact change. Governance is not just something that happens to us," she said.

    Joseph Stiglitz, professor at Columbia University and recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, also touched on the growing "idealism" in the United States that is having a real-time impact.

    "Young people have made it clear that the system of racial injustice has to stop," Stiglitz told Al Jazeera. "They will be inheriting the Earth and can create a post-pandemic world which does not just pick up where we left off but moves us significantly in the direction of a greener world, one with sustainable development and social justice."

    That goes hand-in-hand with economic justice. Stiglitz urged the international community to get behind the proposal of the International Monetary Fund to ease the debt burden of poor countries and release $500bn worth of Special Drawing Rights to allow more lending to economies in trouble.

    He posed several questions: Why is it that while the rest of the world has been put on hold, the financial sector continues to charge interest and penalties? Why are multinational corporations still able to take advantage of globalisation to avoid paying taxes?

    Reforming these multinational and corporate tax policies must be at the top of the agenda if anything is to change.

    "There has to be some way of imposing a moratorium and beginning a process of restructuring [debt]," Stiglitz said. "I am afraid if there's not a great impetus to do it in an orderly way, it will be done in a disorderly way."

    Bina Agarwal, professor of development economics and environment at the Global Development Institute at the University of Manchester, said the pandemic has relieved massive inefficiencies.

    "It's not like we're going to reinvent the world," she said, adding that it could be a time to make it more just and equitable. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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