Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Secretary of ESCWA
on the “Regional emergency response to mitigate the impact of COVID-19”
Beirut, 25 March 2020
Executive Secretary of ESCWA calls on Arab Governments to establish a regional social solidarity fund.
This decade, which dawned on us only three months ago and was marked for accelerated action and delivery towards sustainable development, has been disrupted by a health threat that hit the world and the Arab region hard. Our focus has shifted entirely towards urgent action to save lives, repair livelihoods, and mitigate the socioeconomic impact of COVID-19.
This perilous pandemic is spreading through Arab countries at a time when some of them are already battered by conflict. Let us make this year, 2020, a year for peace in our region. All regional stakeholders and the global community must declare an immediate humanitarian truce and renew efforts to build lasting peace. The blockade of the Gaza Strip must be lifted, as well as sanctions imposed on some Arab countries, with no restrictions on the material necessary to fight the pandemic and protect livelihoods.
Preliminary impact assessments are frightful: losses of invaluable lives; of millions of jobs; of billions of dollars in revenues. Millions more people are likely to be pushed into poverty; there will be disruption of humanitarian aid to millions of refugees and internally displaced; and women, as usual, will bear the brunt of further violence and increased health risks.
I will not dwell on the daunting numbers. My message is clear: this unprecedented threat calls for unprecedented solidarity. Together, we must act, and we must act fast to eradicate COVID-19 and mitigate its impact. Human welfare and social justice must be at the core of any recovery initiative to eradicate this contagion and allow us to resume efforts towards a secure, just and prosperous Arab region.
We, at the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), have worked on a list of policy proposals that I am sharing along with this message. I will highlight but a few, starting with the one that best represents our culture and shared values of solidarity and generosity. We call on Arab Governments to establish a regional social solidarity fund that supports Arab vulnerable and least developed countries (LDCs). The fund will ensure a rapid response to their needs and provide relief during food shortages and health emergencies. Arab Governments could declare the religious tithe (zakat) this year, both for Eid and for personal savings (zakat al-mal), payable to this fund.
In addition, existing regional funds should channel investments to the health sector and to supporting small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Regional development financial institutions, and multilateral financial institutions, must consider debt deferral and debt reduction mechanisms to increase fiscal space to Arab countries to address the impact of COVID-19.
Addressing the implications of this epidemic requires not only a regional response, but also a national response. Arab Governments have already started to take measures worthy of all praise. We call on Arab Governments to take financial measures to serve citizens and invest in their survival. The response to the epidemic should be comprehensive and integrated: it must support the needy, promote social protection systems, support small enterprises and protect them from bankruptcy, and drive the economy. Poor and vulnerable groups, especially older persons, persons with disabilities and migrants, should be protected, and they must have continual access to basic foodstuffs and essential goods at reasonable prices. These are necessary government measures, and the private sector must participate in them to ensure optimal effectiveness and efficiency.
Our circumstances today are exceptional, requiring an exceptional response. An integrated response centred on human welfare and solidarity. Faced with the gravity of the Corona epidemic, and its repercussions that cause further devastation every day, it may seem that any response we take will not live up to the challenges ahead. The challenges are enormous, but our resolve is strong. Let us work together, immediately, to save the greatest possible number of lives, to rearrange our priorities, and to disseminate a new approach to life among Arab populations. Let us work together to restore our peoples’ hope in their future, and trust in their governments. This is our humanitarian obligation and our path to sustainable development that leaves no one behind.