UN commission calls for inter-Arab solidarity in face of pandemic

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres pointed out that “the region is home to the world’s largest gender gap in human development”.

Friday 24/07/2020
Volunteers wearing face masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic distribute food aid at the central market in Tunis. (AFP)
Volunteers wearing face masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic distribute food aid at the central market in Tunis. (AFP)

New York - Faced with deep and lasting consequences from the coronavirus pandemic, Arab countries must show more mutual support through aid  through such initiatives as the creation of “regional solidarity funds,” a UN agency said Thursday.

“The Arab region, home to 436 million people, initially kept transmission and mortality rates lower than the global average but more recent trends are cause for concern,” said a UN document, which details COVID-19’s impact on the region, as well as the body’s recommendations.

The pandemic’s consequences are likely to be deep and spread out over time, the text noted, forecasting a contraction of the region’s economies.

“Solidarity is a core element in resolving and mitigating the impact of COVID,” Rola Dashti, executive secretary of the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) told reporters.

That solidarity, she said, must be expressed within nations themselves and also between Arab countries.

“Providing economic and social support for individuals and households is key, and establishing regional solidarity funds,” the document said.

It added that countries must “reduce inequalities by investing in universal health and education, social protection and technology.”

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press briefing at United Nations Headquarters on February 4, 2020 in New York City. (AFP)
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks during a press briefing at United Nations Headquarters on February 4, 2020 in New York City. (AFP)

In a statement accompanying the document, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres noted that “the region is home to the world’s largest gender gap in human development.”

“COVID-19 recovery is an opportunity to invest in women and girls, ensure equal rights and participation – which will have lasting benefits for all,” he pointed out.

According to Dashti, poverty is likely to intensify in the Arab world: “One of four Arabs may end up living in poverty,” she said.

As a result of the pandemic, an additional 14.3 million people are expected to be pushed into poverty, raising the total number to 115 million — a quarter of the total Arab population, said the ESCWA report. More than 55 million people in the region have relied on humanitarian aid before the COVID-19 crisis, including 26 million who were forcibly displaced.

Dashti noted that the coronavirus pandemic threatens 55 million people in need of life-saving aid, 26 million of whom are forcibly displaced refugees and internally displaced persons. Of those, 16 million are food insecure.

Positive steps taken by countries in the region in fighting the pandemic include support for informal trade in Egypt and payment extensions granted by some countries’ banking sectors, she said.

In his statement Guterres called on Arab countries to re-imagine “the region’s economic model in favour of more diversified, green economies.”

The pandemic will exact a heavy toll on Arab countries, causing an economic contraction by 5.7% this year,  compounding the pre-existing socio economic woes and adding to the suffering of those affected by armed conflict, said the UN report.

The UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia expects some Arab economies to shrink by up to 13%, amounting to an overall loss for the region of $152 billion.

Arab countries as a whole have reported more than 830,000 cases and at least 14,717 deaths. That equates to an infection rate of 1.9 per 1,000 people and 17.6 deaths per 1,000 cases, less than half the global average of 42.6 deaths, according to the U.N.

Public health restrictions have exacted a heavy economic toll, and authorities have been forced to ease them in recent weeks. That has led to a surge in cases in some countries, including Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria and the Palestinian territories.

Gulf countries were hit by the pandemic at a time of low oil prices, putting added strain on already overstretched budgets. Middle-income countries, like Jordan, Tunisia and Egypt, have seen tourism virtually vanish and a drop in remittances from workers abroad.

War-torn Libya and Syria have thus far reported relatively small outbreaks. But in Yemen, where five years of civil war had already generated the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, the virus is running rampant in the government-controlled south while rebels in the north conceal its toll.

“We need to invest in survival, survival of people and survival of businesses,” said Dashti.