The EU steps up for a more equal post-corona future

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will present her proposed coronavirus recovery package in the European Parliament on 27 May. [European Union, 2020. Source: EP]

The EU’s ambitious new budget proposal to drive recovery following the coronavirus pandemic is a good start. But long-term investment will also be needed in health, social protection, and human development, writes Emily Wigens.

Emily Wigens is the EU director of ONE, a global movement campaigning to end extreme poverty and preventable disease.

If this pandemic has shown us one thing, it is that we live in an interconnected world with shared vulnerabilities. From Paris to Johannesburg, billions of people across the world are living with the effects of a truly global pandemic, with fear and economic uncertainty.

However, as leaders struggle to find a way out of this crisis and alleviate its economic effects, we must remember that although the virus knows no borders, the economic fallout will not be felt the same for everyone.

We need global cooperation and action to fight this pandemic and its repercussions – especially for the people, communities, and countries that are least able to withstand the shock.

Coronavirus has already brought tragedy to Europe. The world’s richest countries have seen their health systems close to collapse, while the economic toll is already putting pressure on the continent’s most vulnerable.

In Mali, where there are only 3 ventilators for more than 20 million people, or Nigeria where there are only 14 hospital beds per 10,000 people, the Coronavirus pandemic has further weakened existing fragile health systems.

While the virus appears to have been slower to impact Africa than other parts of the world, the drastic declines in global trade and travel — combined with measures like quarantines — are significantly impacting economies and well-being across the continent.

Few social safety nets exist to cushion the financial blow in countries with a large informal sector where the world’s most vulnerable people rely on daily wages. Two of the continents biggest economies, Kenya and Nigeria, have already been greatly affected.

In Kenya, at least 130,000 formal jobs have been lost, while 500,000 workers have been put on unpaid leave. In Nigeria, prices are rising, which is painfully felt by the 87 million Nigerians living on less than $1.90 a day.

If we have a strong response to the virus in some countries, but not others, then the virus is still winning. This is a critical time and we must act now. Although global leadership is in short supply at the moment, the European Commission has stepped up to help its partners’ recovery.

In April, the EU and its member states reallocated €20 billion of existing funds to support a global Covid-19 response, and in May the Commission co-hosted and coordinated a global event to accelerate the development of a Covid-19 vaccine and treatment. This is impressive, but it is only the starting point because we know it will be a long fight.

The latest release of a revised Multiannual Financial Framework proposal was a further step in the right direction, showing that the EU is ready to make a clear commitment of long-term support for partner countries to help them deal not only with the health crisis caused by the pandemic but also its economic aftermath.

Among the updated figures are €118.2 billion for the EU’s external action, an increase of €9.3 billion, or 8.5% compared to the Commission’s 2018 proposal.

The proposed Neighbourhood, Development & International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI), through which the majority of the EU’s aid budget is channelled, also received a boost of €6.8 billion, to a total of €86 billion – an 8.6% increase compared to the Commission’s initial figures.

All eyes now turn to European heads of state and government. Instead of splitting into rival camps (frugal four, friends of cohesion etc), it is time to think like a union of 27 countries and act for the common good of all Europeans, and the world as a whole.

However, increasing spending is only half the battle – next the EU must ensure that the new funds are allocated to long-term investments in health, social protection, and human development. The EU should not only prioritise health in its future programming objectives, it should encourage partner countries to do so as well.

When leaders respond decisively to health and global crises, they help to prevent future disasters. Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, recognised that this virus can only be defeated through international solidarity and cooperation and that the deployment of a vaccine across the world is our best shot against the coronavirus.

The European Commission must not forget that funds to make a Covid-19 vaccine a global possibility should not be diverted from ongoing and vital vaccination programmes. We do not want to see a repeat of the doubling of measles fatalities during the 2019 Ebola outbreak because of a suspension in vaccinations.

The EU must ensure routine immunisation is not interrupted in the world’s poorest countries, by making an ambitious pledge of €300m to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, who have contributed to bringing 17 new vaccines to the world’s 73 poorest countries.

We are all in this together, and none of us are safe from this virus until all of us are safe. A global approach is required to mitigate the effects of this current pandemic and to help prevent and prepare for the next one. It’s the smarter thing to do and it’s the cheaper thing to do. After all, the global system is only as strong as its weakest link.

The path forward will not be easy, but it should begin by member states realigning behind the Commission’s proposal and showing unity and solidarity with each other and abroad to make sure money is available where and when it is needed most.

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