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Never in Our Lifetimes Has There Been a Call for Compassion Like This

The time is now for the G20 to help save millions of lives and kick-start the future that humanity needs to hope again. Only a compassionate and collective global response will do.

People wearing face masks sit on seats with signs telling travellers where they may sit, in order to observe social distancing rules amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on March 25, 2020. (Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images)

People wearing face masks sit on seats with signs telling travellers where they may sit, in order to observe social distancing rules amid concerns over the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok on March 25, 2020. (Photo: Jack Taylor/AFP/Getty Images)

Never has humanity so deeply needed one another to fight this virus.

I write this from my flat in Madrid, now on Day 13 of lock-down. With my dear partner it is hard not to worry about all our world each day, as she returns home from hospital each evening. She’s a nurse, among the health workers, humanitarians, carers, cashiers and concerned neighbors who we now rely upon to hold up our world.

And never has there been such demand for political action — compassionate, ambitious political action — by the leaders of our governments. Today the world’s richest governments which compose the G20 will meet for a virtual summit.

I hope the voice of United Nations Secretary-General is heard by everyone. He has warned the world: “If we let coronavirus spread like wildfire — especially in the most vulnerable regions of the world — it would kill millions of people”.

Let us be clear. Even as our world suffers, we have right now the capacity to prevent a grave crisis turning into a humanitarian catastrophe. Many governments are acting boldly, now. But mostly, so far, within their borders. It is not enough.

We can only beat this pandemic if we act in every country and for every person. “Coronavirus anywhere is a threat to people everywhere,” said former President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf — a leader, having beaten Ebola, who knows a thing or two about fighting disease. Fighting for some but not others is not an option. And it only heightens risk for us all.

What do we know?

That COVID-19 threatens us all. We are most concerned for our parents and our grandparents, and those amongst us who are already facing underlying conditions.

What do we need to understand better?

How COVID-19 is preying most on the vulnerable. It is exploiting the extreme inequality that defines our world. Unlike the richest amongst us, most of humanity face this crisis with neither access to quality healthcare nor enough cash to get by. Already one in two of us struggle daily to survive. For people in poverty illness can be a death knell.

COVID-19 exploits economic inequality. It also exploits inequality between our nations: so many poor countries with weak health systems are right now drowning in debt, while rich nations can unlock trillions to build new hospitals and for their economies.

It exploits inequality for women who do the world’s most insecure, poorly paid jobs, now facing even more crisis. Who provide, for free, the care work that we depend upon now more than ever.

It affects us all, and it will hit hardest in the slums and refugee camps, and conflict zones and humanitarian crises.

These are the challenges that the G20 must overcome. We need them and governments around the world to, first, upscale their ambition to a level they’ve never seen before.

And we need them to act together. We must get the machine of global cooperation moving again. Forgotten multilateralism, long sacrificed to narrow nationalism, must be put back at center stage.

An ambitious plan is possible from the G20. The checkbooks are open. The sense of political will is greater than we’ve seen in decades.

We need to see our leaders commit to putting resources towards free testing and treatment for all. To — as Spain and other countries have done — directing private alongside public health capacity to fight the virus. We must urgently get support to local humanitarian responders already tackling this crisis, most of whom are women, and ensure access to those most at risk. We need a huge emergency response to give the poorest people the tools to fight this: access to safe water, protection, and public health education to stop the spread.

Before long, a vaccine will be developed. World leaders can, if they chose, agree this is not a time for profits for their big pharmaceutical companies’ shareholders. They can agree to ensure vaccines will be rapidly available, for free, to all.

That’s the health plan.

Then there’s the hard, human economics of ensuring that support is going directly into the hands of people and small businesses to get families through this crisis. We need a seismic surge in welfare payments and social protection — and a collective show of force to put conditions on bailouts for corporations, like treating their workers fairly and cutting their carbon emissions.

There are things we mustn’t do.

Now is not the time to simply throw money at the very drivers of inequality and vulnerability in our economic system that COVID-19 has so profoundly exposed. No way. No, we need leadership to build back our economy — with new ideas — as sustainable and more equal, or we risk fanning the fires of the next crisis even as we emerge from this one

Of course, every government, institution and person must play its part. But — as we’re all truly in all this together — we need those with the broadest shoulders to bear most of the cost.

The G20 as a group of the richest countries can give billions of dollars in support to developing countries. The richest people and corporations — through greater taxation — can help pay for this.

The G20 must act on debt.

Consider over half nations in sub-Saharan Africa were in debt distress or at high risk of being so before COVID-19 unfolded. If they pay the debt that they have today, they will be able only to minimally protect their people. The G20 can decide at the stroke of a pen that poor nations debt be suspended — or indeed cancelled.

Orthodoxy is out. Crisis-mode is in. The time is now for the G20 to help save millions of lives and kick-start the future that humanity needs to hope again.

Only a compassionate and collective global response will do.

Chema Vera

Chema Vera is the interim executive director of Oxfam International.

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