Barbados’ Ambassador to the United Nations, Elizabeth Thompson. (Photos courtesy of Barbados’ Mission at the UN)

On December 3 and 4, some 155 Presidents and Prime Ministers participated in a Special Session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly, to discuss the Corona Virus Disease (COVID-19) and the UN response to the pandemic.

The meeting was held simultaneously via electronic platforms for Heads of State and Government and Foreign Ministers, while ambassadors and diplomats attended in person.

The first day of the two-day meeting ran for 12 hours and brought together the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres; Deputy Secretary General Amina Mohammed; world leaders, heads of UN agencies, and the international finance institutions, such as the World Bank.

UN agencies in attendance included, UNDP, the ILO, WHO, UN Women, Save The Children, and the World Food Programme, as well as UN agencies which have responsibility for humanitarian crises and disaster relief, private sector leaders and civil society groups.

The second day featured three panels of UN agency leaders, technical specialists, financial and medical experts. During the sessions from 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., UN ambassadors put questions to the panels and UN system leaders and experts.

The three panels discussed: Panel 1) the UN response to COVID; Panel 2) the COVID vaccine as a public good; and Panel 3) Resilience and recovery post-COVID.

Barbados’ Ambassador to the United Nations, Elizabeth Thompson, as the Chairperson of the CARICOM Caucus, posed questions to panels one and three on behalf of CARICOM. Ambassador Cosmos Richardson of St. Lucia posed CARICOM’s question to the second panel.

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CARICOM Question to Panel 1: The UN System Response to COVID-19 

“With COVID-19 impacting countries around the world, the United Nations has developed a large-scale response across its various agencies to combat the crisis. Member States have also seen the UN step up to help its host city of New York during its critical time of need.

As Secretary-General Guterres stated, “COVID-19 is the greatest test” since World War II; “it is more than a health crisis. It is a human crisis.”

We have embarked on the Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals. Much of the funding that SIDS, such as those in CARICOM, would have used to implement the 2030 Agenda has been redirected to fight COVID-19 and lay the groundwork for the much anticipated vaccine roll-out at the national level. What is the UN doing to ensure that SIDS remain on target with their SDG implementation, particularly in light of the deepening debt caused in responding to the pandemic and given that many SIDS fall outside of the scope of the G20 Debt Service Suspension Initiative?”

In answer to the first question, Administrator of UNDP, Achim Steiner noted that Caribbean societies and economies had been particularly hard hit by COVID, that their classification as middle income countries, without a vulnerability index puts  them in a very precarious position and that “borrowing money may be a way forward in the crisis, but it is not a way out for SIDS.” He indicated that more needed to be done to give meaningful support.

CARICOM Question to Panel 2: The Road to a COVID-19 Vaccine – a Global Public Good

“As countries that rely heavily on tourism, the closure of the borders and restriction in the movement of people have resulted in a severe slowdown of economic activity in CARICOM countries.

If our economies are to stand a chance of swift recovery, we must ensure that workers in our tourism industries along with health care workers and those with medical conditions are among the first to receive the vaccine. We see tourism workers as part of our public-facing frontline workers.

What is being done to ensure rapid, affordable and equitable access to vaccines in developing countries?”

The response was that the UN/WHO will initially seek to ensure that every developing country gets a minimum amount of vaccines to vaccinate at least 20 per cent of population. Countries will have some leeway in deciding which groups get vaccinated first. So that if the Caribbean region wishes to include Tourism Workers in the first group in  countries to be vaccinated, then we can.  No indication of timing for the regional availability of the vaccine was given, however.

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CARICOM Question to Panel 3: Resilience & Recovering Better from COVID-19

“CARICOM Member States, as SIDS, are in the unenviable position of simultaneously fighting against a global pandemic and a global climate crisis. For the former- the vaccines are on the verge of being introduced to the market. For the latter- we are in a battle against time, waging war against an ever present existential threat. We are among the most vulnerable to climate change and yet have contributed to it the least.

We have heard of some countries that have been unable to fulfil their ODA commitments due to the economic crisis caused by COVID-19.

How do we ensure that climate financing isn’t scaled back because funding earmarked for climate action has been re-directed to fighting COVID-19?”

In answer, UN officials indicated “solidarity with the Caribbean SIDS” given the gravity of the problem for the region. They conceded that the UN and its member states have to see the crisis as a wake-up call and take climate matters more seriously, and a more integrated response is necessary. The UN experts pointed out that 2020 is the first year that the climate commitments would be met and it only happened because of the damper COVID had placed on activity which caused greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, the targets of lower emissions had been met, “but for all the wrong reasons.”

CARICOM ambassadors to the UN are continuing to engage vigorously on issues relating to climate, COVID and financing, in the context of the existential threat these issues pose to the Caribbean region.

Barbados’ Permanent Mission to the UN

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