Op ed: COVID-19 has exacerbated our world’s greatest inequalities
People take precautions against COVID-19 (coronavirus) in Mali . Photo: World Bank / Ousmane Traore
People take precautions against COVID-19 (coronavirus) in Mali
World Bank / Ousmane Traore

Investing in health, water, sanitation, nutrition, education and women is more important than ever

This op ed is co-authored by Gerda Verburg, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Scaling Up Nutrition Movement Coordinator, Catarina de Albuquerque, CEO of Sanitation and Water for All, Vivian Lopez, Coordinator of Every Woman Every Child, and Alice P. Albright, CEO of the Global Partnership for Education.

In a matter of months, a microscopic virus has killed more than half a million people. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that far too many people have little, if any, access to key services and commodities such as water, education, sanitation and hygiene, health and nutrition – all of which are essential to protect everyone from the devastating effects of such a crisis.

Even the seemingly simplest ways to contain the virus – staying home and washing hands – are luxuries for an alarmingly high number of people throughout the world. Many people do not have the option or ability to isolate safely at home. Frequent handwashing is not an option for the 40% of the global population who do not have access to basic hand washing facilities.

For a large portion of people living in low-income countries and countries affected by conflict and instability, a daily wage is a matter of survival. The impact of the virus, combined with decreased family income due to layoffs and lockdowns as well as rising food prices, affects those with fewer choices for longer and with greater severity. It could lead to a global hunger and a malnutrition crisis on a scale not seen for decades. Early World Food Programme projections show that 265 million people could be facing food insecurity in 2020, twice 2019 levels.

As leaders in the areas of water, education, sanitation and hygiene, nutrition, health and gender, we recognize that just as human beings do not live their lives in siloes, the aid they need and deserve must also operate collaboratively across sectors, especially in response to crises like COVID-19. Massive inequities in access to education, nutrition, water, sanitation and hygiene, as well as health services, must be eliminated. These key services, if combined and implemented at scale, can make a big difference for the most disadvantaged, increasing their resilience and that of their communities.

Those are fundamental human rights that cannot be compromised. That’s why we’re urging countries and donors to ensure overseas development assistance programs and national economic stimulus and recovery plans are well-resourced and tailored to protect those who are least protected from the threat of COVID-19 and from the indirect consequences of the pandemic.

As countries worldwide ponder how to reopen schools, we are most concerned with the inextricable link between education, health and hygiene. Sustaining water, sanitation and hygiene programs in schools helps prevent diseases and can empower children to participate as agents of change for their siblings and their parents, contributing to the health of their communities at large. Furthermore, if schools fail to reopen, the nutrition outcomes for a staggering 310 million schoolchildren – nearly half of the world’s total – who rely on school for a daily nutritious meal will be at risk. These essential interventions are not only lifesaving, they help children learn better and unlock their precious potential.

Protecting the right and access to education in the recovery phase is particularly critical for young and adolescent girls who are twice as likely to be out of school in crisis situations and face greater vulnerabilities, such as domestic or gender-based violence, when not in school. Equal access to quality education for girls and women is also critical to reduce malnutrition. If all women in low and middle-income countries received a secondary education, 26% fewer children’s growth would be stunted.

With only ten more years to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals, we must take stock of the lessons learned during the COVID-19 crisis. During the lockdown, we have seen many examples of communities coming together to support each other in hope and solidarity. To some extent, this crisis is also an opportunity to acknowledge that we are interdependent and that the health and well-being of the most vulnerable matters to all. This is both our fragility and our strength.

As international leaders devoted to realizing the 2030 Agenda, we are committed to scaling up and channeling the strategic efforts of our organizations across education, health, nutrition and sanitation as well as empowering women and girls. The goal is to extend to everyone equal access to these most essential human services. Only then can we break the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition and poverty while reinforcing the resilience of the most fragile in the world.

People take precautions against COVID-19 (coronavirus) in Mali . Photo: World Bank / Ousmane Traore
People take precautions against COVID-19 (coronavirus) in Mali
World Bank / Ousmane Traore

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