As the world grapples with the rapid escalation of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has had far-reaching consequences across all aspects of society, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Rt. Hon. Patricia Scotland QC has advocated more robust and coordinated multilateral response to the crisis.
In edited audio excerpts from an interview with Nimi Princewill, Scotland highlighted the Commonwealth's response to the pandemic as well as interventions to support member countries, particularly small and vulnerable states through the crisis.
The Secretary-General also made recommendations for long term economic recovery and job creation post-COVID-19; expansion of the G20's debt relief initiative to include more poor countries in Africa while underscoring measures to tackle the global surge in domestic violence.
The following are excerpts from that conversation.
Nimi Princewill: How worried should we be for young people, especially those in the informal sector with no job security, paid leave or option to work from home in the face of this global health crisis?
Secretary-General: 60% of the Commonwealth's population are under the age of 30. It is a huge worry for us because the Coronavirus is proving not only to be a public health crisis but also an economic one. Out of the 3.3 billion employed people in the world, more than 4 out of 5 are affected by the total or partial closure of workplaces.
Even before the Coronavirus pandemic unfolded, the Commonwealth needed to create 50,000 jobs a day just to absorb new entrants to the workforce, according to the 2020 State of the Digital Economy in the Commonwealth report. Coronavirus has made this situation more pressing, with a likely surge in unemployment. Those in the informal economy are especially vulnerable in this crisis.
Commonwealth countries therefore need to put in place effective policy measures that would ensure that this entire segment of the economy do not crumble as a result of the pandemic. We have recently commissioned a study on COVID-19 impacts on the informal sector in African, Caribbean and Pacific countries and will share the findings in due course.
To help economic long term recovery and generate jobs post-COVID-19, Commonwealth countries can look at investing in the digital economy, both in terms of the digital infrastructure and regulatory frameworks but also equipping people with digital skills to thrive in this environment. The work of the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda supports the development of the national digital economy.
Countries can also work towards upscaling micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) through enhanced value-addition, low carbon sustainable production and processing, aimed at increasing access to regional and international markets.
Governments can also leverage intra-Commonwealth trade to boost trade and economic growth. The Commonwealth Advantage enables member states to trade up to 20% more with each other, than with non-members at a 21% lower cost, on average.
Nimi Princewill: The healthcare systems of most countries grappling with COVID-19 have been stretched beyond their capacities. What interventions are being implemented by the Commonwealth to support member countries, especially the developing ones?
Secretary-General: The Commonwealth has long advocated for Universal Health Coverage. The issue is crucial in the face of COVID-19 in order to strengthen health systems to make healthcare more accessible and equitable across the Commonwealth.
Universal Health Coverage means every single person, each Commonwealth citizen, should have access to the health care they need, without having to be exposed to financial hardship.
We must take action to deliver on UHC across the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting is convening virtually this week (14 May) to discuss strategies to tackle this crisis together with partners, particularly the World Health Organisation.
The aim is to review the Coronavirus response at regional and national level; share good practice strategies, solutions and models; and identify priorities for coordinated action. But also, ministers will discuss how to keep pre-COVID-19 health challenges including NCDs, malnutrition, immunisations, malaria, etc. as government priorities for action.
On a more practical level, the Commonwealth is also developing a price-sharing database for medical supplies. This pandemic has exposed the acute shortage of essential health supplies, drugs, equipment and tests. Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, we were developing a price-sharing database for medicines, aimed at cutting the costs of essential medicines, vaccines and technologies, especially for poorer countries.
The Commonwealth has also launched a Coronavirus Tracker, which identifies risks, gaps, and key areas where the Commonwealth can add value in supporting the fight against COVID-19. It is designed to provide data-driven insights to help policymakers and key decision-makers in Commonwealth countries plan and respond to the pandemic.
Nimi Princewill: Is the Commonwealth championing the cause of debt relief for member states struggling to service their external debt due to the economic fallout of the pandemic?
Secretary-General: Yes, we are. Debt can hinder sustainable development and work against poverty reduction. In light of the huge economic impact of COVID-19, the G20 recently took a major step to approve debt relief for 77 of the world’s poorest countries and asked the private sector to contribute to these efforts. But this should only be a first step. They should expand these efforts to include other vulnerable countries, and other poor countries in Africa that are not low-income or least developed countries, and small states.
The debt service relief, which allows indebted countries to save these monies over the next two years is a good approach. The G20 could look at debt write-offs after this period when they have a clearer picture of their own impacts and a good understanding of how poor and other vulnerable countries are being economically impacted.
Nimi Princewill: There has been a global surge in domestic violence as a result of movement restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19. What can urgently be done to address this terrifying situation?
Secretary-General: The pandemic has amplified the longstanding gender inequalities that exist in our world today. Measures to control COVID-19 spread, such as lockdowns, are causing a higher rate of domestic abuse. If a victim is locked into the same home as the perpetrator of the violence and doesn't have an opportunity to leave, this intensifies the risk.
Developed and developing countries report a 25 to 300% increase in calls to domestic violence helplines and a higher number of domestic homicides. These victims may not receive the urgent help they need if shelters are reduced, hospitals overburdened and staff are ill or self-isolating.
Already, I have been meeting with counterpart organisations such as the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the Pacific Island Forum, to explore collaboration and mechanisms to ensure that women are at the centre of post-COVID recovery planning.
The Commonwealth is also undertaking pioneering research to quantify the cost of domestic violence. Our research in Seychelles for instance, shows that gender-based violence leads to estimated costs of 4.625% ($65 million) of the country’s national income. We are also working No More Foundation to accelerate our efforts to bring down the cases of domestic violence and sexual assault in the Commonwealth. Global companies such as Avon and The Body Shop are supporting this campaign.
Nimi Princewill: How do we manage the environmental consequences of COVID-19?
Secretary-General: In the short term, the pandemic, ironically, has reduced global greenhouse gas emissions. This is already evident as global air traffic dropped by about 60% over March and April, and air quality in the world’s major cities improved dramatically.
However, in the long term, this reduction in overall carbon footprint will not in itself stop climate change. Levels of carbon dioxide were at record levels last year and were still 18% higher in 2015 to 2019 than the previous five years.
It is therefore crucial that moving into a post-COVID-19 world, we take measures to revive our economies and support low carbon industries and businesses. The “new normal” must be driven by sustainable green and blue economies, underpinned by a new awareness of just how much personal choices can affect the environment. There is an opportunity now to invest in nature that will then pay for itself in the economic and societal benefits it will provide for us.
So far, renewable energy uptake seems to be growing despite the economic disruption, whereas fossil fuel use has fallen dramatically. On one hand this looks encouraging, however, the loss of growth in the global economy from declining oil prices and the knock-on effects for the job market will put pressure on governments to extend subsidies for fossil fuels. This would effectively take us backwards in taking action against climate change.
So we need to look at this carefully to make sure we have a balanced approach which will enable our members across the Commonwealth continue to thrive. For example, in Nigeria, 90% of the GDP is driven by fossil fuel.
Alternatively, there is the opportunity for governments to steer stimulus packages towards sustainable green and blue investments, creating new jobs in carbon reducing industries rather than carbon polluting ones.
In the blue economy, for instance, there is an opportunity to invest in natural capital such as mangroves and other coastal ecosystems, that provide highly efficient and cost effective coastal protection, support local fish production and livelihoods, and are incredibly effective carbon sinks. The Commonwealth Blue Charter and Commonwealth Climate Finance Access Hub are examples of flagship programmes that can support a more sustainable Commonwealth in the future.
Listen to the full interview:
Nimi Princewill is a Nigerian writer and social reformer.
Email: [email protected]