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No end in sight to COVID crisis, and its impact will last for ‘decades to come’

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A healthcare worker checks the temperature of a patient at a hospital in Nonthaburi Province, Thailand. UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking

Expressing “appreciation for WHO and partners’ COVID-19 pandemic response efforts”, the emergency committee convened by the UN health agency’s chief, made it clear that there is not yet an end in sight to the public health crisis that has so far infected more than 17 million and killed over 650,000 people.

The committee convened by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, under the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR), held its fourth meeting on 31 July.

Sustained effort needed

In its statement following the meeting, published on Saturday, it highlighted the “anticipated lengthy duration” of the pandemic, noting “the importance of sustained community, national, regional, and global response efforts.”  

After a full discussion and review of the evidence, the Committee “unanimously agreed” the outbreak still constitutes a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). Tedros accepted the advice of the Committee.

The Director-General declared a PHEIC – WHO’s highest level of alarm – on 30 January, at a time when there were fewer than 100 cases in total, and no deaths outside China.

‘Once-in-a-century health crisis’

The pandemic is a once-in-a-century health crisis, the effects of which will be felt for decades to come”, Tedros told the Committee in his opening remarks on Friday. 

“Many countries that believed they were past the worst are now grappling with new outbreaks. Some that were less affected in the earliest weeks are now seeing escalating numbers of cases and deaths. And some that had large outbreaks have brought them under control.” 

Recommendations

The Committee made a range of recommendations to both WHO and Member States. 

It advised the agency to continue to mobilize global and regional multilateral organizations and partners for COVID-19 preparedness and response and to support Member States in maintaining health services, while also accelerating the research and eventual access to diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines. 

Fair access

It advised countries to support these research efforts, including through funding, and to join in efforts to allow equitable allocation of diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines by engaging in the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, an unprecedented global collaboration between countries, philanthropists and business.

The committee also advised countries to strengthen public health policies to identify cases, and improve speedy contact tracing, “including in low-resource, vulnerable, or high-risk settings and to maintain essential health services with sufficient funding, supplies, and human resources.” 

Countries were also advised the committee to implement proportionate measures and advice on travel, based on risk assessments, and to review these measures regularly.

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Environment

How food waste is trashing the planet

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18 June is Sustainable Gastronomy Day, an international celebration of local cuisine that is produced in ways that are both environmentally friendly and minimize waste. That last part is becoming increasingly important. A recent report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) found the world is in the grip of an epidemic of food wastage. In 2019, consumers tossed away nearly a billion tonnes of food, or 17 per cent of all the fare they bought.

That is deeply problematic in a world where 690 million people were undernourished in 2019, a number expected to rise sharply with COVID-19. It’s also bad for the planet. Some 10 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions come from producing food that is ultimately thrown away.

UNEP recently sat down with two of the authors of the 2021 Food Waste Index Report: Clementine O’Connor, food systems expert with UNEP, and Tom Quested, an analyst with the non-profit organization WRAP. They talked about what the world can do to end the scourge of food waste.

UNEP: What are the main findings of the 2021 Food Waste Index Report?

Tom Quested: A staggering 17 per cent of all available food for human consumption is wasted. If you can picture 23 million fully-loaded 40-tonne trucks – bumper-to-bumper, enough to circle the Earth seven times – then that’s what we’re talking about. The report estimates that, in 2019, 61 per cent of food waste was generated by households, 26 per cent from food service and 13 per cent from retail.

UNEP: Why does food waste matter?

Clementine O’Connor: Even before COVID-19, some 690 million people in the world were undernourished. Three billion people are unable to afford a healthy diet. Uneaten food is a sheer waste of energy and resources that could be put to better use. Reducing food waste at the retail, food service and household levels can provide multi-faceted benefits for people and the planet. Up to now, the opportunities provided by food waste reductions have remained largely untapped and under-exploited.

UNEP: Is this a rich-world problem, or is it more widespread?

O’Connor: An important finding of the study is that household per capita food waste is broadly similar across country income groups (as defined by the World Bank), suggesting that action on food waste is equally relevant in high and middle-income countries. This breaks significantly with the narrative of the previous decade that household food waste is a rich country problem – and underlines the need for middle-income countries to measure baselines and develop national food waste prevention strategies. Providing technical support to help countries get started, UNEP is now launching Regional Food Waste Working Groups in Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, West Asia, and Asia-Pacific.

UNEP: What are the key data gaps?

Quested: Most governments around the world have not collected sufficiently robust data to make the case for action. Even fewer have the data to track trends in food waste over time. However, there have been a growing number of national estimates of food waste in recent years. Areas with higher data coverage include Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. In contrast, North Africa, Central Asia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Polynesia and the Caribbean have no available estimates.  Data in the retail and food service sectors is also much more limited than for households. As measurement is an important early step to taking action on this important issue, much more measurement is needed.

UNEP: What’s the difference between food waste and food loss?

O’Connor: Food loss occurs along the food supply chain from harvest up to, but not including, the retail level. Food waste occurs at the retail, food service and consumption levels.

UNEP: How does food waste undermine sustainable development?

Quested: Food waste generates all the environmental impacts of food production (intensive use and pollution of land and water resources, exacerbation of biodiversity loss, greenhouse gas emissions) without any of the benefits of feeding people. Food waste, therefore, undermines sustainable development. Sustainable Development Goal 12, Target 12.3, aims at halving per capita global food waste at the retail and consumer levels and reducing food losses along production and supply chains, including post-harvest losses by 2030.

UNEP: Why should I reduce my food waste? How can I get started?

O’Connor: Reducing food waste at home is one of the easiest ways to reduce your personal climate impact. You eat – and make food decisions – at least three times a day. Some easy ways to get started:

Buy only as much as you need: check your fridge before you buy groceries (or add to your online shopping cart as you notice something is missing) to avoid impulse purchases. If you can, buy fresh food regularly and top-up when needed, rather than trying to get accurate quantities in one bulk shop.

Use what you buy: get portion sizes right by using a cup measure for rice, couscous or pasta. Cook creatively with leftovers: many recipes are flexible enough to absorb any wilting vegetables at the bottom of your fridge. Most leftovers will go into a taco, a sandwich, a curry, a frittata or a pasta sauce, and will be transformed with a sauce or relish. Chefs are increasingly keeping food waste prevention in mind when they share new recipes. Make good use of your freezer: food can be frozen until its expiry date or if it still looks tasty, if it doesn’t have a date. When you get back into a restaurant, you’re on the right side of history when you ask for a smaller portion or a doggy bag, so don’t hesitate to do so.

How will you be tracking progress?

O’Connor: Food waste data in relation to SDG 12.3 will be collected using the United Nations Statistics Division/UNEP Questionnaire on Environment Statistics. The questionnaire is sent out every two years to National Statistical Offices and Ministries of Environment, which will nominate a single food waste focal point in the country to coordinate data collection and reporting. The data will be made publicly available in the SDG Global Database and in UNEP’s Food Waste Index Report, which will be published at regular intervals up to 2030. The next questionnaire will be sent to Member States in September 2022, and results will be reported to the SDG Global Database by February 2023.

UN Environment

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Development

COVID-19 and social protection

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The June segment of the 109th International Labour Conference  has come to a close – the first virtual ILC in its history and one that featured intensive discussions on the impact of COVID-19  on the world of work and how to ensure a human-centred, inclusive recovery.

During plenary discussions, delegates addressed the Director-General’s report to the Conference on Work in the time of COVID , which applied the human-centred approach of the ILO’s 2019 Centenary Declaration  to achieving a sustainable and inclusive global pandemic response. Delegates unanimously adopted a Global Call to Action outlining measures to create a human-centred recovery from the pandemic to avoid long-term scarring of economies and societies.

The Global Call to Action  commits countries to ensuring that their economic and social recovery from the crisis is “fully inclusive, sustainable and resilient.”

A World of Work Summit  was held on 17 – 18 June, which featured addresses from world leaders and representatives of workers’ and employers’ organizations, and the United Nations. They included Pope Francis, President of the Republic of Korea, Moon Jae-in, Portuguese Prime Minister, António Costa, US President, Joe Biden and President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Félix Tshisekedi. The Summit focused on the need for a global response to the COVID-19 crisis  and the action required to build a better future of work.

The Conference adopted the report of its Committee on the Application of Standards  (CAS), which adopted conclusions on the application of specific ILO Conventions in 19 countries. It included Belarus, El Salvador and Zimbabwe in special paragraphs identifying particularly serious problems in the application of standards. It agreed on the importance of promoting employment and decent work in a rapidly changing world of work, stressing the need for governments, in consultation with employers’ and workers’ organizations and stakeholders to develop, implement, monitor and review policies and programmes rooted in International Labour Standards.

A discussion on Social Protection  focused on the impact of COVID-19 and on the rapid changes occurring in the world of work. Delegates adopted conclusions that outlined a framework for urgent action towards universal, adequate, comprehensive and sustainable social protection systems that are adapted to developments in the world of work.

The actions included measures to strengthen national social protection policies, close financing gaps, strengthen governance and adapt social protection systems in the aftermath of the crisis and in the context of the future of work.

Delegates adopted an emergency resolution on Myanmar , which called for the restoration of democracy, the reestablishment of civilian rule, the end to arbitrary detentions and violations of human rights, and the restoration of fundamental principles and rights at work. It called on the ILO Governing Body to monitor the situation in Myanmar and follow up on the implementation of the resolution.

Delegates also voted to adopt the ILO Programme and Budget for the 2022-23 biennium . In addition, they agreed to abrogate or withdraw 29 outdated international labour instruments.

Closing this segment of the ILC, the ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, expressed his satisfaction at the results obtained during what he described as a ‘remarkable’ Conference, guaranteeing the institutional and business continuity of the Organization.

“What has been done over the last few weeks places our Organization where it needs to be. It equips our Organization to rise to the challenges of this most difficult moment in the world of work. It’s an expression of how many governments, workers and employers look to us for leadership and action.”

Nearly 4,500 delegates took part in the virtual ILC, including 171 ministers and vice-ministers and high-level representatives from workers and employers, from 181 ILO Member States.

The second segment of the Conference will take place from 25 November to 11 December this year, with an agenda that includes thematic discussions on inequalities and the world of work, as well as skills and life-long learning.

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Development

An Education Reform Path for Lebanon

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Lebanon needs to urgently embark on a comprehensive reform agenda that puts students at the center of the education sector and prioritizes quality of education for all, according to a new World Bank report released today. Low levels of learning and skills mismatch in the job market have put the future of generations of Lebanese children at risk and imply a critical need for more and better targeted investments in the sector.

The report, titled “Foundations for Building Forward Better: An Education Reform Path for Lebanon”, presents an overview of key challenges facing the education sector. It provides evidence-based solutions founded on a diagnostic of the factors contributing to the learning crisis and proposes policy reform recommendations over the short- and medium- to long-terms. The proposed reform plan is in line with the objectives of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education’s 5-year draft sector plan, which aims to improve equity, learning outcomes, and governance in education. The report also draws from the latest available education sector research, including studies conducted under the Research for Results Program launched back in 2016. 

The compounded crises that have assailed Lebanon over the past several years –Syrian refugee influx, economic and financial crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Port of Beirut blast– have all put severe strains on an already struggling education system. Pre-COVID-19 learning levels were already comparatively low, with only 6.3 years of learning taking place, after schooling is adjusted for actual learning. The global pandemic has led to extended school closures since March 2020, which will likely result in a further and significant decrease in learning. Effectively, students in Lebanon are facing a “lost year” of learning. Despite efforts to reopen schools, a more systematic approach for planning at the district level, in close collaboration with regional education office directors, is needed as the response requires local solutions. 

Lebanon needs to urgently reform the education sector and build forward better,” said Saroj Kumar Jha, World Bank Mashreq Regional Director. “Now more than ever, Lebanon needs to invest more and better in improving learning outcomes for children and making sure Lebanese youth are well equipped with the right skills required by the job market to enable them to contribute to Lebanon’s economic recovery”.

The multiple crises and the resulting increase in poverty rates, with more than half the population likely below the national poverty line, have also directly impacted demand for education and student retention. The contraction in the economy, plummeting purchasing power and the steep deterioration in living conditions will likely lead more parents to shift their children to public schools in the coming years, as well as higher student drop-outs, especially among marginalized households. The report presents key aspects for restructuring the education sector financing in support of a more efficient and equitable system and to prevent further learning loss. 

The report puts forward for discussion sector-wide mid-term reform recommendations across seven key strategic areas: I) Restructuring Sector Financing; II) Diagnostics to Support Overcoming the Learning Crisis; III) Improvements of Teacher Utilization and Quality of Teaching; IV) School Environment and School Accountability Measures; V) Education Strategy and Curriculum Reform; VI) Early Childhood Education; and VII) School to Work Transitions and Youth. These recommendations for action tackle key challenges within the sector and approaches towards addressing the growing learning crisis and meeting the increased demand for public education in the country while regaining equity and efficiency.

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