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COVID-19 provides opportunity to resolve conflicts, address weaknesses across Arab region

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Jabra is seven years old, she lives in Sana, Yemen. She is learning the correct way to wash her hands and how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. © UNICEF

António Guterres has released a policy brief outlining four sets of priorities to help these countries build back better and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the 2030 deadline.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fault lines, fissures and fragilities in societies and economies around the world – and the Arab region is no exception,” said Mr. Guterres in a video accompanying the launch.

“Together, we can turn a crisis into an opportunity.  It will be good for the region — and good for our world.”

Poverty threatening millions

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Arab Region: An Opportunity to Build Back Better is the latest UN policy initiative to help countries deal with the pandemic, providing ideas for governments on how to address the consequences of the crisis.

Arab nations – which have a collective population of more than 430 million – have seen a sharp drop in oil revenues, remittances and tourism.  

The regional economy is expected to contract by over five per cent, amounting to an overall loss of $152 billion. As a result, a quarter of the population might end up in poverty.

“In a region already rife with tensions and inequalities, this will have profound consequences on political and social stability”, the UN chief warned.

Concern for women, displaced persons

Years of conflict and social unrest have reversed progress in human development, and some communities will be hit hard by the pandemic. They include women, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).

The Arab region already has the world’s largest gender gap, and the UN fears women could lose around 700,000 jobs, particularly in the informal sector where they comprise more than 60 per cent of the workforce.

“Those caught in armed conflict face particular challenges, especially the 26 million refugees and internally displaced persons, who are among the most exposed to the virus”, said the Secretary-General.

The pandemic is also likely to increase wealth inequality, already the highest in the world.   Meanwhile, weak public institutions mean many countries are not able to plan for major crises.

Mahmoud Charary a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon plays with his one-year-old daughter.

Seize COVID-19 ‘moment’

Despite these challenges, the Secretary-General viewed COVID-19 as an opportunity to effect change in the Arab region, saying it “can also be a moment for resolving long-standing conflicts and addressing structural weaknesses”.

He has proposed four sets of priorities to guide responses, with the immediate focus on slowing spread of the disease, ending conflict, and supporting the most vulnerable people.

“That means prioritising life-saving health care to COVID-19 victims, respecting the call for a global ceasefire; ensuring humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable — including refugees, displaced and host communities; providing emergency support to individuals and households; and taking steps to relieve debt, promote trade and expand relief — for example, through a regional solidarity fund,” said Mr. Guterres.

Invest to end inequalities

Given the inequalities in the region, the UN chief called for greater investment in universal health, education, social protection and technology.  He also highlighted the need to invest in women and girls, and to ensure equal rights and participation.

“Education and opportunities are also critical for young people in the region who face unemployment rates five times higher than those for adults.  With the right investments, Arab youth — now the largest age group in the region — can also be its largest asset”, he added.

A greener, diversified economy

The Secretary-General also emphasized the need to boost economic recovery through more diversified and “green” economic models.  This can be achieved by creating decent sustainable jobs, introducing progressive taxation measures, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and taking greater account of climate risks.

“Now is the moment to prioritize human rights, ensure a vibrant civil society and free media and create more accountable institutions that will increase citizen trust and strengthen the social contract,” said Mr. Guterres, underlining his fourth priority area for the region.

The policy brief also highlights the key role of the international community in supporting any transition in Arab countries, including through providing humanitarian assistance and greater access to financing, as well as measures to manage debt and remove barriers to trade.

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Environment

Discrimination in the air

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Nine out of 10 people globally breathe polluted air, causing about 7 million premature deaths every year. On 7 September 2020, the United Nations observed the first International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. This article is part of UNEP’s continuing coverage of air pollution and its impact globally.

Over 40 per cent of the U.S. population – about 134 million people – face health risks resulting from air pollution, -according to the American Lung Association. The burden is far from evenly shared. Studies show that in the United States, people of color and low-income communities face a significantly higher risk of environmental health effects, highlighting that the impacts of air pollution are experienced unequally throughout the country.

People of color are more likely to live in areas affected by pollution and high road traffic density, increasing risks to their health. As prominent American environmental justice activist and leader Robert D. Bullard emphasizes, race and place matter.

For example, along the Mississippi River in the southern United States, there is an area with some of the worst air pollution in the country. In the stretch between New Orleans and Baton Rouge Louisiana, many people live right next to several high-polluting industrial plants. Residents, who are predominately Black, have seen significant cancer clusters, with cancer risks in the area reaching up to 50% more than the national average. In St. John the Baptist parish alone, an area of about 2 square miles, the cancer rate is about 800 times higher than the American average.

Similarly, New York City neighborhood Mott Haven, home to mainly LatinX and Black families, has a very high level of air pollution from traffic, warehouses, and industry.  Residents in Mott Haven face some of the highest rates of asthma cases and asthma-related hospitalizations in the country, especially among children.

Often, communities experiencing high levels of air pollution are among the most vulnerable, facing poor access to health services, limited economic opportunity, more polluted work environments and racial injustices.  Comprehensive policies are needed to address these interrelated challenges.

“There is a strong correlation between socioeconomic factors and risk of air pollution,” said Dr. Barbara Hendrie, Regional Director for UN Environment Programme North America. “Recognizing this, and the disproportionate impacts of air pollution throughout the United States is a critical part of developing effective solutions.”

On the first-ever International Day of Clean Air for blue skies in September, the UN Environment Programme called upon governments, corporations, to civil society and individuals, to take action to reduce air pollution and bring about transformative change.

Air pollution does not have to be a part of our collective future. We have the solutions and must take the necessary actions to address this environmental menace and provide #CleanAirForAll.

UN Environment

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ADB Helps Boost Philippine Military’s COVID-19 Testing Capacity

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The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has donated two coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing machines that can each test nearly 100 people per hour to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to support the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The real-time Polymerase Chain Reaction testing machines will be installed in the Philippine Army Molecular Laboratory in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City. The laboratory will support the COVID-19 testing of AFP personnel in Metro Manila as they continue to play a key role in reducing the spread of the virus.

“ADB supports the Philippine government’s strategy to prevent and control COVID-19 by expanding testing, particularly in hardest-hit Metro Manila and surrounding provinces,” said ADB Director General for Southeast Asia Ramesh Subramaniam. “We have seen military personnel in action on the frontline from the beginning of the pandemic and we hope the new testing machines will help ensure the safety of AFP’s essential workers.”

For more than 7 months, the military has played a key role in implementing official COVID-19 control measures in the Philippines. They operate checkpoints, distribute food, and manage local quarantine regulations. The government is seeking to raise its daily COVID-19 testing capacity to about 50,000 by the end of the year, compared with nearly 31,000 as of 15 August.

Procurement of the testing machines, at $35,000 each, is part of ADB’s $5 million Rapid Emergency Supplies Provision Assistance to the Philippines, approved in March 2020. The program is known locally as Bayan Bayanihan. The program involved ADB working closely with AFP to urgently deliver emergency food assistance to around 162,000 vulnerable households in Metro Manila and nearby provinces in April and May 2020. This innovative program successfully brought in additional resources from private and philanthropic organizations.

On 24 April, ADB approved a $1.5 billion loan to help the Philippine government fund its COVID-19 response program and strengthen the country’s health care system in its fight against the pandemic. Other support includes a $3 million grant on 14 March to build a pandemic laboratory in the Jose B. Lingad Memorial General Hospital in San Fernando, Pampanga that can process 3,000 COVID-19 tests daily. Equipment for the new laboratory was airlifted by the Philippine Air Force from Shenzhen, the People’s Republic of China, in April at the height of the strictest lockdown in Metro Manila due to the pandemic.

On 27 April, ADB approved a $200 million loan to help the government provide emergency cash subsidies to vulnerable households amid the pandemic. A $125 million loan was approved by ADB on 25 August to help the Philippines improve health services across the country through medical equipment and supplies procurement, upgrade, and related training.

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Development

Tech-Driven Changes in Job Markets Threaten Social Contract with Workers

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“Technology has a major, if not the most important, role in shaping the future of work,” said C. Vijayakumar, President and Chief Executive Officer, HCL Technologies, on day two of the World Economic Forum’s Jobs Reset Summit 2020.

In the next five years, machines will displace an estimated 85 million jobs but create around 97 million new jobs across 15 industries and 26 economies, according to the Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020. The global recession driven by COVID-19 has accelerated this trend and created a highly uncertain outlook for global labour markets.

“The fact that technologies potentially allow us to work anywhere, anytime sounds extraordinarily attractive,” said Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO). “But if it similarly would allow someone to tell me that I must work anywhere, anytime, regardless of my own choice, it’s somewhat less attractive.” Ryder added that the gig economy – as revealed by the pandemic – has created “extraordinary vulnerability in the world of work, not just in the developing world, but also “in the attics of Manhattan.” Freelancers are not clear about their employment status and can find themselves falling through the gaps of social protection systems. “The 21st-century employment model…looks a lot like the 19th century,” he said, adding: “it took us a century to build the institutions to put some decency into that business model.”

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, warned that “Internet-mediated platform jobs are absolutely breaking down wages and conditions.” Burrow called for a new social contract between workers, employers and governments to ensure that every working person enjoys an adequate minimum wage for a maximum number of hours worked, universal social protection and occupational health and safety as a fundamental right. She called for an end to employer impunity, with “mandated due diligence around workers and their rights”, including sufficient grievance procedures and remedies. Collective bargaining has collapsed, with 75% of people reporting that their incomes have stagnated or gone backwards since the late 1980s. Unless we rebuild those commitments, we won’t have a fair economy, said Burrow, concluding: “Flexibility doesn’t mean exploitative work.”

What is needed is massive investment in people, workplaces and jobs in growth industries. People need skilling and reskilling. In particular, governments and companies must “invest in social protection – the most effective lubricant of change,” according to Ryder. He pointed out that change has been bad for too many people, so they are more likely to embrace change if they are reassured they won’t fall through the cracks in the process. Meanwhile, workplaces need re-engineering, by which Ryder means better laws and regulations to protect workers. And more investment needs to go into areas with the greatest potential for job growth, including green technologies, the care economy, infrastructure and the rural economy.

Increasing public investment by 1% of GDP in advanced and developing economies would create up to 33 million new jobs, said Burrow, citing the International Monetary Fund. “We can double that by investing in care,” she added. Vijayakumar embraced the potential of low-carbon technologies, saying: “The 21st century will be marked by the sustainable economy – tech companies have a huge role to play to create these new jobs in the intersection of climate change and public services, as well as consumer products.”

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