UN chief: Coronavirus reveals ‘fragility of our world’

UN chief: Coronavirus reveals ‘fragility of our world’

‘We have been brought to our knees by a microscopic virus,’ Guterres says, adding pandemic has shone a spotlight on global injustices

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at UN Headquarters in New York City, on February 4, 2020. (Angela Weiss / AFP)
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at UN Headquarters in New York City, on February 4, 2020. (Angela Weiss / AFP)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Coronavirus has revealed the “fragile skeleton” of societies and could push 100 million people into extreme poverty, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Saturday.

Speaking on the 102nd birthday anniversary of the late Nelson Mandela — South Africa’s first black president — Guterres said coronavirus was “shining a spotlight” on global injustice.

“We have been brought to our knees — by a microscopic virus. The pandemic has demonstrated the fragility of our world.”

“Entire regions that were making progress on eradicating poverty and narrowing inequality have been set back years, in a matter of months,” he warned at a virtual memorial lecture organised by the Johannesburg-based Nelson Mandela Foundation.

The economic fallout of the pandemic, which has infected more than 14 million and killed close to 600,000 people worldwide, is being disproportionately felt among informal workers, small businesses and women, Guterres said.

Colombian soldiers guarding a street during a curfew imposed in red-zone neighborhoods due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases in Cali, on July 17, 2020. (Luis ROBAYO / AFP)

“We face the deepest global recession since World War II,” he said. “One hundred million more people could be pushed into extreme poverty. We could see famines of historic proportions.”

Coronavirus is an “x-ray” that has revealed “fractures in the fragile skeleton of the societies we have built”, he added, citing unequal healthcare provision, unpaid care work, income disparity and climate change as some of the concerns.

Cleaning staff in personal protective equipment in the intensive care unit at Saint Petros Hospital in Addis Ababa, on July 17, 2020. (Amanuel Sileshi / AFP)

“It is exposing fallacies and falsehoods everywhere… The delusion that we live in a post-racist world. The myth that we are all in the same boat.”

He said the world’s 26 richest people hold as much wealth as half the global population.

“But income, pay and wealth are not the only measures of inequality,” he added.

Guterres said people were running out of patience at the glaring disparities and discrimination across societies.

He singled out the global anti-racism movement stoked by the death of George Floyd — an African-American man killed by a white policeman in May — as simply “one more sign that people have had enough.”

Demonstrators hold placards as an ambulance drives past them during a demonstration against a coronavirus vaccine trial at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, south Africa, on July 18, 2020. (Marco Longari / AFP)

Enough of “inequality and discrimination that treats people as criminals on the basis of their skin color”, Guterres said, enough of “structural racism” and “systematic injustice.”

Coronavirus, he said, had also created an opportunity for world leaders to build a “more equal and sustainable world.”

“We are at breaking point. But we know which side of history we are on.”

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