For almost two years, the world has been in the grips of one of the greatest global challenges in recent history. The stark images as all humanity dealt with COVID-19 remain etched in our minds. Healthcare workers outnumbered by patients but fighting with incredible strength and resilience to save every patient. Empty roads, empty airports, empty schools, empty offices and empty treasuries. All engulfed in an eerie silence, interrupted by the sounds of slogans in solidarity with our front-line workers.
In the Maldives, as foreign minister, I had a front seat to see the enormous impact on our country and our economy. As in many other small island countries reliant on tourism, the economy was the first casualty. A vibrant, thriving nation came to a standstill, overnight. When flights stopped and tourists stopped arriving on our shores, we effectively became a ‘no income’ country.
Our first priority was to respond quickly to the health impacts. We boosted testing capacity, established treatment facilities, and mobilised and trained healthcare workers. As a net importing country, securing essential food and commodities was especially crucial. Minimising the impact on our economy was our second, equally important priority. Stimulus packages and income support were distributed. Social security, including universal health insurance, single parent support and elderly pensions, continued.
There are many lessons that a small country like the Maldives learnt, in the wake of the pandemic. Lessons that can be extrapolated globally.
First, the inequalities in the international system have been exposed like never before. The virus demonstrated equity in its impact and spread of devastation, but the multilateral system’s response was unequal. With the varying degrees of shock due to disruptions in supply chains and decreased revenues, asymmetries in the ability to deal with the pandemic and access resources, shortages of life-saving drugs and the digital divide, it is abundantly clear that we are in different boats.
Second, the importance of global cooperation has been underscored to an extent that might not have been felt since the end of World War Two. In the Maldives, we would have been unable to attend to the impacts of COVID-19 – be it health or the economy – without the support of our bilateral and multilateral partners. The adage ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’ should be the mantra of revitalising multilateralism. But we did not need a pandemic to remind us of the value of strength in unity.
From the initial stages of the pandemic, when information and advice to policymakers and healthcare workers were crucial, to the mobilisation and deployment of medical supplies, medicines and protective gear and, finally, to the research and development of vaccines in record time, throughout this pandemic we can see the important role that global solidarity, international cooperation and multilateralism could play.
Rays of hope
The tide that has lifted, and that can continue to lift, all boats is multilateralism. That is why this moment is so crucial. The United Nations was born out of the ashes of war. The leaders of the time understood that by working together, the destruction, devastation and despair that were so profound during the war would never be seen again. Today, once again, we have an opportunity to recommit ourselves to multilateralism. To do better. To build back better, stronger, greener and bluer.
This is the context in which the Presidency of Hope begins. If the 75th session of the UN was about responding to the emergency requirements of COVID-19, this 76th session is about recovery.
This is why my first ray of hope is recovering from COVID-19. First, we must ensure that countries have the resources and ability to boost their health responses. This is especially important in the wake of new variants. Policy advice, technical support, shared resources and financial support will be necessary, especially for vulnerable countries.
Second, we must ensure that countries have plans in place for sustainable recovery. The Decade of Action – the 10 years that we have left until the deadline of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – will now be a Decade of Recovery. A decade of rebuilding sustainably – my second ray of hope.
In recovering sustainably, we cannot continue to treat the needs of our planet as secondary. Climate change already affects our world. The number of adverse weather incidents we are witnessing is no accident. These are warnings of an impending crisis – warnings we must heed.
Third, it is time to acknowledge that the security of every nation relies on global health security. We need to strengthen our health systems through emphasising universal health coverage for sustainable and equitable development. Ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is the first step. Through multilateral efforts we can coordinate the most needed resources for the most needy recipients.
The world today faces a test like never before. How we fare depends on how well we uphold the multilateral institutions that have carried us forward since the Second World War. For the sake of humanity, and for our future generations, let us join hands in the spirit of solidarity and cooperation to march towards a dawn of hope. ▪