25 January 2021
With Rosemary and Jean-Pierre in September I warned you that the virus and its secondary effects would hit the world’s most fragile and conflict-affected countries hardest.
That’s still the case.
Ten days ago, the world passed the grim milestone of 2 million deaths from COVID. Almost 98 million people are confirmed to have contracted the virus around the world. Twenty-four million – almost a quarter of them – live in countries facing humanitarian or refugee crises.
As the tip of the iceberg, most cases are still not in the figures.
It is clear that many poor countries are in the midst of a dangerous second wave.
New and more infectious variants will make this worse.
Remarkable progress with vaccines shows the way out.
But no one is safe until everyone is safe, and the risk that the most fragile countries are at the end of a long, slow moving queue for the vaccine imperils us all.
The secondary consequences of the virus are still even more lethal.
This year, we estimate that 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection. 40 per cent more than last year, almost entirely down to COVID.
The worst global economic contraction in 90 years is worst of all in the poorest and most fragile countries.
Many may lose a decade or more of per capita income growth.
Sovereign debt defaults loom.
Extreme poverty is rising for the first time in 20 years.
With all this comes a steep rise in food insecurity. Multiple famines are on the horizon.
Public services are disappearing.
In more than 20 countries in which my office is present, disruption in routine immunization campaigns leaves millions of children vulnerable to killer diseases like measles and cholera.
School closures leave children more likely to be married off or recruited into armed groups. The number of out-of-school children is set to increase by 24 million because of the pandemic.
Women and girls are being hit hardest.
They are the first to miss meals – and they represent 70 per cent of the world’s hungry.
Gender-based violence continues to mushroom – a deadly shadow pandemic of violence resulting from the behavior of men.
So, the picture is bleak for the world’s most vulnerable people.
I want to say a few words about how the humanitarian system has responded to COVID-19.
In 2020, humanitarian agencies provided lifesaving assistance to almost 100 million people.
Through the Global Humanitarian Response Plan for COVID-19, we raised almost US$4 billion thanks to generous contributions from 160 donors. With this money, we were able to:
- Transport more than 26,000 health and humanitarian personnel and more than 118,000 cubic meters of critical COVID-19 cargo;
- We were able to reach 74 million people with critical water and sanitation supplies and services;
- 75 million women and children with essential health care;
- And to help more than 33 million refugees, internally displaced people and asylum-seekers affected by the pandemic.
But it has become harder to reach people. More must be done to improve access to the most vulnerable – and to ensure the safety and security of humanitarian and health workers.
While the humanitarian community has managed to sustain and scale up assistance to an unprecedented level, that effort has been outpaced by the growing scale of this crisis.
So, I seek the Council’s help in three areas.
First, we need immediate and generous funding of the Global Humanitarian Overview that we published last month. In 2021, the UN-coordinated humanitarian system needs $35 billion to reach 160 million people.
We need additional funding if we are to avoid some of the worst-case scenarios that lie on horizon.
Second, their shareholders must do more to strengthen the support the international financial institutions provide to their most vulnerable members.
It is staggering to me that of the $110 billion pledged by the international financial institutions since March, only $11.7 billion, just 10 per cent, was targeted at low-income countries. And only $7 billion has actually been disbursed – the equivalent of about $10 per person.
Third, we need to take action to ensure vaccines reach the most vulnerable people in the world.
Countries should scale up their support for the ACT Accelerator and the COVAX Facility. And while they have a primary responsibility to vaccinate their own citizens, governments should also consider channeling surplus doses through COVAX. This is not about generosity but a matter of the self-interest of wealthier countries. New analysis reported by the New York Times yesterday suggests that wealthy countries vaccinating themselves by the middle of the year but leaving poor countries largely shut out could knock $9 trillion off the global economy – nearly half those costs accruing to wealthy countries themselves.
National governments must also fulfill their responsibility to include in their national vaccination plans all high-risk populations within their territories, including refugees, internally displaced people, and people living in areas under the control of non-state armed groups.
We must also ensure that COVID-19 vaccines do not get financed in the very poorest countries at the expense of other life-saving activities. If money is diverted from routine immunization, famine relief or other health services to pay for the COVID vaccine, the result will be more not less loss of life.
We have reasons for hope. The speed with which effective vaccines have been developed is a historic achievement for humanity.
But we have also seen a dangerous failure to take adequate action to help the world’s most vulnerable countries.
The next six months will be crucial. Today’s decisions will determine our course for years to come.
- UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
- To learn more about OCHA's activities, please visit https://www.unocha.org/.