A community member is screened and tested for Covid-19 at Lenasia South in April. File picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)
A community member is screened and tested for Covid-19 at Lenasia South in April. File picture: Itumeleng English/African News Agency (ANA)

United Nations tackles Africa's coronavirus challenges head-on

By Opinion Time of article published Oct 24, 2020

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By Nardos Bekele-Thomas

As the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary today, never before has it confronted greater challenges since its birth in 1945. The Covid-19 pandemic threatens to upend a well-crafted post-World War II multilateral system that has stood the test of time - until now.

The socio-economic impact of the pandemic is challenging the virtues of multilateralism, putting to the test, decades of strenuous work that has maintained and strengthened it. The coronavirus has exposed the world to the uglier side of sovereignty and rugged nationalism.

The world has seen cut-throat competition among rich countries on the market for personal protective equipment (PPE), pushing poor countries to the back of the queue. Developed countries have unveiled large stimulus packages to boost their economies, an option not available to poor countries.

Yes, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has offered loans and debt relief to poorer countries whose fragile economies have taken a hit. The fund expects Africa’s economic growth to decline by 7% this year, the worst in decades. For South Africa, the IMF approved in July a R70 billion ($4.3 billion) emergency low-interest loan - for the first time since the advent of democracy in 1994 - to ease the adverse impact of the pandemic.

While the full effects of the pandemic are still unfolding, they threaten to reverse or wipe out the pre-Covid-19 gains made from implementing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and South Africa’s National Development Plan.

Recognising the damage that Covid-19 has inflicted globally, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reminded delegates at this year’s General Assembly debate that “no other global organisation (than the UN) gives hope to so many people for a better world”. He urged them to mobilise resources, strengthen their efforts and “show unprecedented political will and leadership to ensure the future we want, and the United Nations we need”.

Despite the current headwinds, the UN’s response to Covid-19, and in particular the World Health Organization, has been laudable, especially its technical support to developing countries.

In a momentous recognition to the virtues of multilateralism, the UN World Food Programme’s efforts to feed the hungry were rewarded with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize award.

In South Africa, the UN is finalising its Sustainable Development Co-operation Framework - the document that spells out its work - for the period 2020-2025. Earlier this year, the organisation launched a $136 million (R2.2bn) emergency relief appeal for South Africa to assist almost 10 million people most hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Based on the UN’s needs assessment, the South African economy is projected to decline by 7.9% this year and may not recover to its pre-Covid-19 performance until after 2024. In response, the UN is supporting small businesses and smallholder farmers affected by the pandemic. It is also supporting national, provincial, and municipal governments to design post-pandemic recovery plans.

Undoubtedly, Covid-19 is threatening the viability of industrial production and business continuity, especially for women- and youth-led small and medium enterprises. Hence the need for direct financial support and loan guarantees to avoid saddling firms with too much debt (but conditional on retaining). For its part, the UN is supporting the government on policies that provide income support to businesses and workers to maintain economic activities, mainly to firms facing greater risk of failure.

With employees returning to work, the UN is collaborating with South African health authorities to ensure the workplace does not become the launch pad for a Covid-19 second wave.

Protective measures should be put in place including engineering and administrative controls, safe and environmentally sound Covid-19 waste management systems, safe work practices and personal protective equipment at all workplaces.

Equally hit by the impact of the pandemic are vulnerable refugee-hosting communities, where thousands have lost their income. In response, the UN is complementing measures by the government and partners to ensure that refugees, migrants and asylum- seekers are included in Covid-19 preparedness and response efforts. For example, to support them through these difficult times, the UN has provided one-off cash payments and other assistance to refugees, migrants as well as South Africans themselves.

In line with its work to ensure key populations and vulnerable communities are not left behind during this period, the UN has prioritised those living with HIV/Aids, repurposing about half of its HIV budget and revising its work to reflect the increased Covid-19 challenges. It is also supporting widespread advocacy to protect the safety of midwives and the women they serve and advocating for higher investments in reproductive health.

As part of Covid-19 relief measures, women-owned enterprises in formal and informal sectors should have access to knowledge, information and tools to sustain their businesses, the UN launched a rapid assessment of women in the informal sector, in collaboration with the government and partners. It is also providing technical support to the government to fast-track action on gender-based violence and femicide.

The pandemic has undeniably revealed high inequality and pressing human rights concerns, and shone a light on the plight of the most vulnerable populations that require urgent help. To this end, the UN is working with partners to ensure that human rights and gender equality are integral parts of national Covid-19 responses.

As the UN addresses deep-seated challenges including intergenerational poverty and violence, it is also redoubling its support to the government to monitor the impact of the pandemic on children’s health, safety and education as they return to school. To this end, handwashing stations are being constructed at schools across South Africa.

These efforts are meant to support and complement the government’s comprehensive response to the impact of Covid-19, providing more evidence of how international co-operation and solidarity can restore and strengthen the role of the post-war multilateral system.

No doubt in South Africa, and elsewhere around the world, the government will not be able to lead the recovery from this crisis alone. Hence the UN commends the government for a whole-of-society and whole-of-government approach to address current challenges.

As Mr Guterres reminded General Assembly delegates, multilateralism is a necessity in building back “better and greener” and the UN must be at the centre of these efforts. “An upgraded UN must respond to these challenges and changes to stay relevant and effective.”

* Nardos Bekele-Thomas is the United Nations resident co-ordinator in South Africa

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