We are living in unprecedented times. COVID-19 continues to devastate health systems, cripple economies, and exacerbate inequalities across the globe. As I write these words, the Caribbean region remains a hotspot of a disease, which is highlighting a simple reality: global crises require global solutions. This pandemic is our opportunity to strengthen regional collaboration and global solidarity to address our shared challenges and move forward. This can only happen if we are courageous and dedicated enough to seize the opportunities presented to us.
Where do we go from here?
This week, Jamaica received its first deliveries of COVAX-funded COVID-19 vaccines, and some 15 Caribbean countries will receive just over 2.1 million doses of COVAX vaccines by May. Administering and implementing effective and equitable COVID-19 vaccination programmes is one of the first steps in the long journey to recover, rebuild, and re-establish the hard-won levels of development that countries like Jamaica have had.
To further support reconstruction, and over the coming months, the United Nations will work with its partners across the Caribbean to facilitate the development of a build-back-better road map. The new business plan, a multiyear agreement, will define the areas of support and technical cooperation that United Nations Country Teams will provide to the peoples and Governments of the Caribbean. We look forward to collaborating with all stakeholders to get this done.
Building back better grounded in tangible goals and outcomes
Throughout this process, the common compass will remain the 2030 Agenda. If the past year has taught us anything, it is that countries will be better placed to deal with and recover from shocks if they are closer to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This growing consensus is highlighted by recent efforts of global leaders. In 2020, we witnessed first-hand the Canadian and Jamaican prime ministers’ personal involvement in major UN efforts to link COVID-19 financing challenges to the SDGs. We were encouraged by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s commitment to making sustainability the core of the recovery plan for Europe, inspired, in her words, by the SDGs. We have also seen public development banks agree to align nearly $2.3 trillion in annual financing with the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. The momentum is definitely present.
At the regional and country levels, our heads of agencies have witnessed constructive exchanges among governments, young people, international organisations, civil society, and private-sector experts, passionately debating and unearthing innovative ways to mitigate the socio-economic impact of COVID-19 on livelihoods, boost competitiveness, and build resilience, ways to advance innovation and digital transformation, while fostering sustainability and green growth. And we have taken note.
What we heard is an appetite for more resilient health systems; a transformation of educational models; embracing of tourism and entertainment in the build-back-better agenda, and doing all of this in a way that centres the climate and human rights – especially for those who are most vulnerable, including people with disabilities, women, and children.
It is now widely accepted that universal access to health can no longer be an ideological aspiration but must be a critical goal with a practical plan of action and significant investment. To this end, our health systems will only recover if we urgently control further transmission of COVID-19 (including through accessible and affordable vaccines for all), if we protect and maintain the delivery of other essential health services, and if we strengthen national and global pandemic preparedness and response all while promoting good physical and mental health among our populations.
Transforming Educational Models, Tourism, and Gender-Based Violence
There is also broad agreement on the need to transform educational models. Because of COVID-19, nearly 95 per cent of children are out of school across the region. While teachers across the region have been dedicating themselves tirelessly and selflessly to offering learning alternatives for those who need them, children’s education has still been massively interrupted. This is worsened by a digital divide resulting in significant inequalities in the provision of and access to said available learning alternatives. Despite the heavy toll on our economies, there is notable growing support from individuals, governments, and the private sector for digitalisation in education, especially for our most vulnerable children and those in rural areas. This is commendable, but even more can be done.
Tourism, one of the most dynamic sectors in our region and one in which job creation is strongest, has been one of the hardest hit by the current crisis. Large- and small-scale businesses are calling for a build-back-better agenda that embraces tourism in more sustainable, equitable, and environmentally responsible ways. In so doing, we ensure that tourism as well as the entertainment and creative industries regain their positions as providers of decent jobs and stable incomes and as guardians of our cultural and natural heritage. Beyond economic indicators, tourism, travel, and entertainment bring people closer together and remind us of our common humanity.
In the heart of the pandemic, the United Nations, supported by its partners, directed millions of dollars to amplify the fight against gender-based violence across the region and the world. In the Caribbean, through the European Union-funded Spotlight Initiative and others, there was marked acceleration in the development of virtual and innovative resources for women and girls, including a greater push for safe transition shelters for victims of abuse. Still, the epidemic of femicide and family violence still looms – dismantling families, reducing the economic workforce, and threatening to erode the moral fibre of our societies. The women and children of our region deserve better, and they should not have to wait. This build-back-better agenda should not leave them behind.
The time for action is now
Now is the time to reinforce our commitment and efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and other global challenges. The United Nations Decade of Action recognises that these challenges require urgency and ambition, concrete actions and results. While much is being done by governments, civil society and public-private partnerships, we cannot overlook the power of each individual, to not only beat COVID-19, but to champion the 2030 Agenda in their daily lives. From parliaments and board rooms to street corners and social media platforms, each person can commit to better respect the planet, to support a neighbour or child in their digital education and to commit to speak justice to violence whether it occurs next door or on the Internet – and especially when it victimises women, girls and the most vulnerable among us.
There is no doubt there is a great amount of work to do. To quote the United Nations Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed: “Piecemeal, ad hoc efforts are not enough; we need results at scale and a whole-of-UN and [whole-of-society] approach. We can make this a year of urgency, and the 2020s a Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”
We cannot succeed working in isolation. Working together we can build a more inclusive and resilient society beginning with a new multi-year cooperative agreement that is fit for purpose and leaves no one behind. The region has the full support of the United Nations.
We will build back better if we build back together.
Blog was originally posted on The Gleaner. Dr Garry Conille is the United Nations Resident Coordinator (UNRC) for Jamaica, The Bahamas, Bermuda, Turks and Caicos, and the Cayman Islands. Dr Conille is a former prime minister of Haiti and a physician by trade. Jomain McKenzie is a development coordination officer and head of communication at the UNRC. To learn more about the work being done in Jamaica visit: Jamaica.UN.org.