Panel III: Resilience and Recovering Better from COVID-19 - Special Session of General Assembly in response to Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic

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04-Dec-2020 02:15:12
Amid threat of catastrophic global famine, COVID-19 response must prioritize food security, humanitarian needs, experts tell General Assembly.

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Speakers Highlight Progress in Vaccine Development, as Special Session Continues

Expert panellists addressed the General Assembly in the second day of an unprecedented special session dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic that has so far infected 65 million people and continues to claim 70,000 lives every week, citing possibly catastrophic global famine in the coming months, while also pointing hopefully towards imminent vaccines and their deployment.

The session — the first ever to address a pandemic — featured three interactive panel discussion during which speakers shed light on the United Nations system’s response, the vaccine development process and how to ensure a resilient recovery which prepares the world for future outbreaks.

Opening the day-long programme, General Assembly President Volkan Bozkir (Turkey) said Member States at the highest political level had gathered in a comprehensive multilateral approach to combat “a disease that does not recognize borders”. Adding “we cannot neglect our duties to the people we serve in this time of crisis”, he noted the need to maintain efforts towards sustainable development and green economies even amid the crisis.

Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations — highlighting the Organization’s immediate response in terms of health services, humanitarian needs and supporting national Governments — said these efforts have helped 71 countries implement more than 300 social protection policies, supported the provision of water, sanitation and hygiene supplies to 25 million people and helped over 100,000 companies to stay afloat. “But we are keenly aware that our response must go further,” she added, as it will not be easy to reduce poverty and inequality, fully realize the rights of women and girls, and transition to a green economy with decent work for all.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaking via video-teleconference from Geneva, said that although the unprecedented crisis has strained the very fabric of multilateralism, it has also demonstrated the United Nations capabilities. Working closely with other major United Nations organizations, the WHO has provided personal protection equipment to 179 countries and territories. “The pandemic is what humanity is capable of at its best and worst,” he said, but with 65 million people infected and 1.5 million deaths worldwide, responses involving solidarity and sacrifice show the virus can be tamed and stopped, while where there is self-interest, the virus thrives and spreads.

Positive developments in vaccine development reveal “the light at the end of the tunnel is growing steadily brighter,” he said, while warning that the poor cannot be stampeded by the rich and powerful in the rush for treatments. In April, WHO established the Access to COVID‑19 Tools (ACT)‑Accelerator to deliver them and has already secured 120 million low-cost rapid tests and other provisions, with 189 countries and economies also participating in the COVAX Facility. However, he noted the ACT‑Accelerator faces a $4.3 billion funding gap, with a further $23.9 billion required in 2021.

Several speakers pointed to the dangerous immediate future of COVID-19 deaths and extreme hunger, with Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, stressing that “we are still in a very, very difficult and dangerous situation”, with 4.4 million new cases and 70,000 deaths every week. Consistent and comprehensive strategies are needed, as a vaccine may be hopefully near, “but vaccination does not equal zero COVID”, he said.

Likewise, David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), warned of alarming global hunger and food insecurity, with the number of people “marching towards starvation” spiking from 135 million to 270 million as the pandemic unfolded. He stressed that 2021 will be catastrophic. “Famine is literally on the horizon and we are talking about the next few months,” he said. Noting how the WFP stepped in to deliver aid when the global airline industry shut down at the start of the pandemic, he warned anew that 2021 risks becoming the worst humanitarian crisis year since the founding of the United Nations, “and we will have to step up”.

Striking a similar note, Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said that in the absence of humanitarian assistance the lives of 235 million people are at stake — a 40 per cent increase, with poverty rising for the first time in 20 years while life expectancy will fall. It would be a significant achievement to avert a major famine. Despite $4 billion raised so far for the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, and some $2 billion distributed in social protection payments, the difference being made is much too small in relation to the challenge. The vaccine rollout must be done right. “Let’s not finance vaccines at the expense of food security programmes or routine vaccinations. That would make things worse,” he warned.

Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, pointed out that the pandemic has left 80 million refugees and internally displaced persons particularly vulnerable to health hazards and other consequences. Most refugees are in poor countries, a fact that requires a special focus. From day one, his Office has strived to be present wherever necessary. That was not easy when travel was difficult, but its staff found ways to adapt, using technology and building upon cooperation with indispensable local providers.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director, United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), said that women and girls in particular have been hit hard by the crisis and Government stimulus packages must be directed to help them and to address underlying problems of discrimination. Likewise, Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), said the international community must listen to communities to learn which women are losing access to contraception as the pandemic goes on. Losing the ability to control their fertility will lead to pregnancies, adding another burden to the virus and exposing more inequality.

Focusing on the scientific aspects of the pandemic, Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Executive Director and Chief Scientist, noted that without investment in technologies and new modes of delivering vaccines, scientists would not have been able to move so quickly to trials. “It is a record, it is absolutely unbelievable that within about 320 days, from the genetic sequence of the new virus, a vaccine is being made public,” she stressed, pointing to the Chinese vaccine with an emergency use authorization.

Uğur Şahin, founder of BioNTech, said that after recognizing the outbreak would likely become a pandemic, his biotech firm switched its operations from developing a cancer vaccine to a COVID-19 vaccine, aligning with different groups of scientists to do the research, which enabled them to come up with a safe, highly effective vaccine. “We created a 24/7 programme called Lightspeed,” he said, noting that the company partnered with colleagues from the United States as well as others.

Seth Berkley, Chief Executive Officer, Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), said that efforts are under way to ensure 2 billion doses of a vaccine are made available to those that would otherwise not be able to afford them. A fund was established to assist small economies in acquiring doses of a vaccine, and for its part, GAVI set aside $150 million to work with partners in helping Member States set up distribution networks once vaccines are rolled out.

Turning to the economic fallout of the pandemic, Mari Pangestu, Managing Director, Development Policy and Partnerships at the World Bank, said its lasting damage is creating economic and social setbacks around the world and taking countries away from their progress towards realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. To prevent further harm and to build back better, the institution is providing emergency assistance for health and social needs as well as $12 billion in financing for the purchase and distribution of vaccines. Testing and containment of the virus also must be in place, he said, warning that the international community and its institutions must be ready for the next crisis.

The interactive panels were followed by the continuation of the general debate from 3 December, during which statements were made by the Presidents of the General Assembly and Security Council.

Also speaking during the general debate were Ministers and senior government officials from Mozambique (on behalf of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Brunei Darussalam, Slovenia, United States, Morocco, Jamaica, Bhutan, Ireland, Poland, Ukraine, Nicaragua, Portugal, Romania, Libya, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Paraguay, United Kingdom, Argentina, Netherlands, Georgia, Ghana and Liberia.

The Assembly will resume its special session at a time and date to be announced.

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