By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, May 14 2020 (IPS) – The relentless battle against the devastating coronavirus pandemic has been underlined by several widespread advisories from health experts – Stay home. Wash your hands. Wear mask. Keep social distance.
But the UK-based WaterAid and UN Habitat in Nairobi point out the paradox in at least two of the warnings: a staggering 3.0 billion people worldwide have no water to wash their hands and over 1.8 billion people have no adequate shelter—or homes to go to. The deadly coronavirus pandemic has undermined the UN’s battle against extreme poverty and hunger and upended its longstanding campaign for “water and sanitation for all” and shelter for the homeless -– all of which are an integral part of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
“The poorest people in the world are being left to face the COVID-19 pandemic alone,” says WaterAid, “with not even the most basic defence — clean water and a bar of soap”, one way to prevent the spread of the disease.
And worse still, in over 50 recent financial commitments made by donor agencies to developing countries, only 6 of them have any mention of hygiene, complains WaterAid, an international non-governmental organisation, focused on water, sanitation and hygiene.
Meanwhile, in terms of homelessness, even the world’s rich nations have not been spared.
In 2018, says Habitat, the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless reported that homelessness had skyrocketed across the continent.
And in the United States, 500,000 people are currently homeless, 40 per cent of whom are unsheltered.
In a locked-down New York city, the homeless have virtually taken over empty subway cars while turning subway stations into homeless shelters – even as City authorities are physically driving them out to the streets, with no homes to go to.
Kathryn Tobin, Advocacy Coordinator at WaterAid, told IPS the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to derail the focus of the international community away from the SDGs, especially with crises at home that may fuel anti-aid sentiment in industrialised countries.
But what should actually happen is the opposite: COVID-19 should be a wake-up call to the world that our current trajectory is not only unsustainable but destructive, especially for those already living in poverty and facing discrimination, she added.
“The pandemic should inspire a global turning point, towards a massive increase in public spending for health, water and sanitation, housing and infrastructure required to tamp the flow of the virus, but also for social protection, education, living wages, and the rest of the SDGs, to address the economic impact of the pandemic through major economic stimulus as we’ve seen in the richer countries,” Tobin argued.
Pedro Conceição, Director of the Human Development Report Office at UNDP, told IPS that UNDP recently published two dashboards with data for 189 countries and territories that revealed significant disparities on countries’ abilities to cope with and recover from the COVID-19 crisis.
And these differences, he pointed out, include but also go beyond the capacity of their health systems.
He pointed out that more than 40 percent of the global population does not have any social protection and more than 6.5 billion people around the globe – 85 percent of the global population – still don’t have access to reliable broadband internet, which limits their ability to work and continue their education.
”It is important to ensure the response to COVID-19 comes with an equity lens. Countries, communities and groups that were already lagging behind will be particularly affected by the fallout from COVID-19.”
If they are left further behind, he warned, the consequences could have long-term impacts in advancing human development and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
According to the UN World Economic Situation and Prospects (WESP) mid-2020 report, released May 13, the pandemic will likely cause an estimated 34.3 million people to fall below the extreme poverty line in 2020, with 56% of this increase occurring in African countries,
An additional 130 million people may join the ranks of people living in extreme poverty by 2030, dealing a huge blow to global efforts for eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.
The pandemic, which is disproportionately hurting low-skilled, low-wage jobs, while leaving higher-skilled jobs less affected – will further widen income inequality within and between countries, the report noted.
In a joint op-ed piece for IPS, Maimunah Mohd Sharif, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN-Habitat & Leilani Farha, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, call on governments “to take steps to protect people who are the most vulnerable to the pandemic by providing adequate shelter where it is lacking and ensuring the housed do not become homeless because of the economic consequences of the pandemic.”
These crucial measures include stopping all evictions, postponing eviction court proceedings, prohibiting utility shut-offs and ensuring renters and mortgage payers do not accrue insurmountable debt during lockdowns.
“In addition, vacant housing and hotel rooms should be allocated to people experiencing homelessness or fleeing domestic violence. Basic health care should be provided to people living in homelessness regardless of citizenship status and cash transfers should be established for people in urgent need.”
WaterAid’s Tobin said for those with historical obligations to provide development assistance and climate finance, COVID-19 should inject an urgency to provide unconditional and immediate financing (through debt cancellation, a new allocation of SDRs, global taxation, all the measures we outline in our blog) to enable developing countries to fund their COVID-19 response.
But these should not be temporary relief measures.
COVID, she said, should inspire a new social contract between states and their people (regardless of citizenship), and reignite multilateralism to redirect the world towards climate justice, economic justice, gender justice, etc.
“The pandemic should not be used as an excuse to postpone the fulfilment of the SDGs (kicking the can down the road and leaving the world even less prepared for the next pandemic or manifestation of climate crisis) but should be the moment in which governments band together to fulfil their duty of care for both people and the planet,” she declared.
Meanwhile, the World Health Assembly is scheduled to meet next week, but current drafts of the resolution have failed to put an emphasis on how vital hygiene is and there is no plan as to how to close the huge access gap.
Vaccines and therapeutics are obviously vital, but an equal emphasis needs to be put on prevention, especially in countries with such weak health systems, a statement from WaterAid.
The draft World Health Assembly (WHA) resolution on COVID-19, which will be discussed at a virtual WHA next week, has no mention of water and hygiene access as fundamental preventative and protective measures, and fails to put in a place any sort of plan to tackle the huge gaps in access to this first line of defence.
WaterAid believes this is a dereliction of duty from both donor countries and national governments of countries where access is low, and flies in the face of WHO’s advice to Member States which calls for an urgent provision of hygiene services in communities and health centres.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Thalif Deen