By Simon O’Connell, Executive Director, Mercy Corps
After the warmest decade on record, it's January 1, 2030. A new decade and a big year ahead.
Of course 2030 is the year the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals were to have been achieved. Our shared blueprint for peace, prosperity, people, and the planet — with a fifth “P” partnership, at its core.
Looking back to those early months of 2020, who could have predicted where we would be a decade later? With so many unknowns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, we could barely plan a few weeks ahead.
There was an understandable initial primary focus in each country on suppressing the transmission, on health care, and on domestic economic priorities. Our health service and other key workers became our heroes — rightly so. Economic stimulus packages, of vastly different sizes, were put in place, along with movement restrictions. A massive reduction in global travel saw short-term positives in reductions in carbon emissions. Solidarity, community, and partnership were the words of the moment.
But this up-swelling of local solidarity didn’t extend beyond our borders. Societies and communities in the world’s advanced economies turned inwards, especially following the second wave of the virus, leading to the trade and economic breakdowns that so trouble our global economy today. The COVID chills, dating back to 2020, show no sign of warming.
During the first phase of the COVID-19 pandemic I remember the efforts that were made to draw attention to the impending crisis in displaced camps in northwest Syria; to Yemen, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at the time; and to conflict ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo, which had just endured its largest ever Ebola outbreak. The then UN Secretary General called for a coordinated global response.
And yet, as we all now know, that didn’t happen.
The lack of timely and meaningful support for the humanitarian system led to vastly diminished capacities, and breakdowns in the provision of basic services and life-saving interventions in many of the world’s most fragile places. Tens of millions lost their jobs and economic livelihoods, while foreign debt in the world’s poorest countries soared. Hunger and poverty increased; there were thousands more preventable deaths.
US employment numbers bounced back faster, followed by those in Europe. But populists were able to exploit the economic crisis and heightened nativist sentiments, which led to a further breakdown in global relations and the multilateral system.
Weak global supply chains that failed to adapt, competition, and poor information sharing due to mistrust resulted in the COVID-19 vaccine — when it finally became available 18 months after the pandemic began (a record at the time) — being rolled out unequally. Mass vaccination campaigns in the world’s poorest nations weren’t fully implemented until mid-way through 2022, and health and economic disparities have only continued to widen over the past 10 years, fueling widespread unrest.
The 2020s were the most violent and conflict-prone decade since World War II. Today, the COVID wars, as we’ve come to call them, continue to rage across swathes of sub-Saharan Africa, the conflict in Yemen enters its 16th year, and Syria remains fragmented with meaningful reconstruction still yet to happen. Levels of displacement have soared, with 2029 seeing a record 5 million people fleeing to Europe’s shores.
And as we know, the Sustainable Development Goals were abandoned midway through the decade. The COVID-19 pandemic hugely exacerbated gender inequalities, with 2020 levels of violence against women and girls never seen before. The climate change conference COP26, when it finally took place, was fragmented and steeped in bitterness; once again, we saw the prioritisation of national needs over commitments to collective action.
But, it didn’t have to be like this.
In 2020, our leaders could have shown us that they truly understood what to act in solidarity means — to act in the mutual, shared interests of us all.
We could have chosen to recognize that this solidarity, in the face of a pandemic, must be local, national, and global. We could have affirmed our support for multilateral institutions, while establishing new financial instruments that more effectively enabled partnerships across public and private sectors.
Debt relief initiatives could have enabled the poorest countries to invest in their health systems and social protection mechanisms. And we could have made commitments early on to make digital technologies that enabled collaboration, communication, and information sharing more equitably available.
If only we’d embraced those opportunities back in 2020 — wherever we are today, we’d all be in a much better place for having done so.
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