I have an unpopular opinion: COVID-19 isn’t the problem. It is a problem, a grave one no doubt, but it is exposing – not causing – all of the other problems that we are facing and now need to address more than ever if we want to survive and thrive.
I am Global Focal Point for SDG 8 for the UN Major Group for Children and Youth (UNMGCY), the official youth (under 30) engagement mechanism for many intergovernmental sustainable development policy processes. My first serious engagement in the United Nations was in 2014, during the drafting and negotiating of what became the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction. As my tenure (and eligibility as “Children and Youth”) comes to an end, my reflections on the last five and half years begin with one simple equation, discussed frequently in disaster management:
R=HV/C. Risk equals hazard times vulnerability divided by coping capacity.
We humans have little control over natural hazards such as earthquakes or viruses. But we do have control over how these problems affect us. The whole purpose of – and a prerequisite for – sustainable development is to reduce vulnerability and increase coping capacity.
Many of the actions that would do this we have long known about, yet neglected. Even before the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak a “pandemic” on 11 March, the UNMGCY made a statement of Global Solidarity, calling for “strengthened multilateralism, and a renewed commitment to democratic values, human rights and health equity.” Good foreign policy is always good domestic policy, but in our globalized world, the reverse is not always true. In times of crisis, we need strong partnerships and multilateral institutions. We need to support the vigilance and the independence of such institutions.
By sharing information and allowing governments to act faster, freedom of speech increases our coping capacity, and yet we see gag-orders and criminalization of whistle-blowers in multiple countries.
Similarly, universal access to health coverage reduces vulnerabilities and increases coping capacity by ensuring that everyone can get the treatment they need; in a public health emergency, we are only as healthy as our sickest link. Decent work for all – living wages and social protection – increases coping capacity and reduces vulnerabilities. If someone has to choose between getting sick and putting food on their table, which do you think they will pick? To paraphrase a childhood friend, “isn’t it funny how when the stock market does well, I get nothing, but when the stock market does poorly I lose my job?” No, it isn’t funny.
Things are scary right now. But to everyone who wants things to back to the way they were, I say, “a return to normal is the worst possible thing that could happen to us.” A return to normal means eight men hoarding more wealth than HALF of the world's population of 7.8 billion and a return to normal means a climate crisis.
In 2016, during the lead up to the Third United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, I wrote a paper about Socrates and the myth of Atlantis. Atlantis sunk as a result of natural hazards, and the actions of the unjust people who lived there. Japanese mythology is full of stories of gods causing earthquakes and tsunamis. Pachamama, too, is known to cause such disasters. That is the fate we are facing today; this is our sink or swim moment.
To navigate these waves, we need a compass to guide us forward, to get us back on a path of justice. At the Science, Technology, and Innovation Forum, I argued that sustainable development is a vector, where technology is our magnitude and the humanities are our direction.
But my point is not about the importance of the liberal arts, I just wanted to regale you with tales of how many different UN processes I’ve engaged in. Global Compact on Migration? Done it. Financing for Development Forum? Check. I was in UNHQ when the SDGs were adopted, I watched young people protest the inadequacy of the Paris Accord, and here I am writing about it all. My point is the importance of policy coherence.
My least favourite word in economics – aside from growth – is externalities. Externality is a total misnomer, and anyone engaging in policy coherence would know that. Gender inequalities contribute to poverty which contributes to hunger leading to poor educational attainment which means you can't get a decent job and that increases your vulnerability during health crises, and all of this is compounded generationally! There are no externalities; everything is interconnected, and so the only meaningful strategy to these problems lies in a systemic approach.
A systemic approach requires a transition. We talk a lot about just transitions and school-to-work transitions, but at the very core of this is a transition, a shift, a change in how we address problems, in how we think. Young people are constantly asked to be adaptable by corporations and governments looking to capitalize on our labour. Now we ask them back to be adaptable in their governance structures, their economic systems, and their relation to the environment because all of these things are interconnected.
My position requires me to talk a lot about meaningful youth engagement, so let's put it this way: the important part is not the fact that your governing body has a young person on it (which I doubt most entities reading this blog post have,) the important part is the change from normal; this is not a static process, and we must learn to ebb and flow. And that's scary! But you see, these are times of uncertainty. Today, I am a chef, a care-giver, and a cartoonist and those are just the c’s!
And all of these increase my C value, my coping capacity. I, too, am going through a transition. I will step down from my position at the United Nations Major Group for Children and Youth after a career that spanned six continents, work with some two dozen UN entities, and countless sleepless nights, fighting for young people, for change. I do not know what I will do tomorrow, but this time has allowed me to know that that is not a problem.
You don't have to know what you are going to do tomorrow, either, but do you know what problem you are going to solve?
by Peter Abraham Fukuda Loewi (UN MGCY)
This article is part of the Decent Jobs for Youth Blog Series: Youth Rights & Voices. The Blog Series highlights the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young women and men in the world of work and discusses action-oriented policy responses and solutions. If you would like to comment or contribute, please contact email@example.com.
To bring youth voices to the forefront of action and policy responses, the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth (DJY) and its partners are conducting a survey on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth rights. Participate in the survey now!