Health, inequality dangerously linked, speakers warn, stressing exclusion, disparity impeding ability to contain COVID-19, on day three of high-level political forum.


Inequality and exclusion have deeply impaired the ability to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, which, in turn, further widened such disparity, demonstrating the dangerous links between health and inequality, experts warned, as the high‑level political forum on sustainable development moved into the third day of its two-week session.

The forum is the United Nations central platform for follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Goals adopted in 2015. Providing for the full and effective participation of all Member States of the United Nations and of specialized agencies, the 2021 forum — under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council — will review, from 6 to 16 July, progress in implementation.

The forum held three panels today, focusing on issues under the 2021 theme: “Sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic that promotes the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development: building an inclusive and effective path for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda in the context of the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”.

The morning panel discussion centred on interlinkages among Sustainable Development Goal 3 on good health and well‑being, Goal 10 on reduced inequalities, Goal 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions and Goal 17 on partnerships.

Sarah Cliffe, Director of New York University Center on International Cooperation, described how a regression in one global Goal can erode gains in other areas in a vicious cycle. For instance, during the COVID-19 pandemic, more unequal societies had significantly higher infection rates than more equal, inclusive societies, she pointed out, highlighting the links between Goals 3 and 10. Another example is the relationship between Goals 10 and 16, she said, explaining that “vertical” inequality — between classes on socioeconomic grounds — has a clear relationship to criminal violence, including on homicide rates, she said.

Along the same lines, Quarraisha Abdool Karim, Associate Scientific Director, Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research, and Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at Columbia University, described how countries that have invested sufficiently in vaccine development infrastructure and human resources or that have capacity for bulk manufacturing and distribution have been able to ensure sufficient numbers of vaccine doses for their citizens, while the rest of the world joins the end of the queue even if they have participated in multicentre clinical trials to evaluate the vaccine.

Presenting the Secretary-General’s progress report on the Goals under review, Haoyi Chen, Coordinator, Intersecretariat Working Group on Household Surveys, Statistics Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, said that COVID-19 is likely to reverse progress made in reducing income gaps since the financial crisis. Moreover, the pandemic is disproportionately affecting children, threatening to push an additional 8.9 million into child labour by the end of 2022, adding to the 160 million children already suffering that plight at the beginning of 2020.

Proposing a solution to reduce inequality, Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director of Oxfam International, called for the introduction of permanent wealth taxes and corporation taxes worldwide to both reduce inequality and fund equalizing policies.

James K. Boyce, Senior Fellow at the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said that, instead of an equitable allocation of protective equipment, medicine and vaccines, these scarce resources followed “the contours of wealth and power”. He stressed that national fiscal capacity to provide vital public goods and services can be built by encouraging tariffs on luxury imports and by ending the ubiquitous tax exemptions granted to the international community.

Armida Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), said that regional cooperation is necessary to avoid the emergence of a K-shaped recovery [in which different parts of the economy recover at different rates, times or magnitudes] with new divides. The annual ESCAP session in April endorsed the “Action Plan to Strengthen Regional Cooperation on Social Protection in Asia and the Pacific”, which has some 15 national actions to be implemented by 2030, including setting national targets for social protection.

In the afternoon, the forum held panel discussions on the themes “Going local” and “Restoring the conditions for SDG progress in African countries, least developed countries and landlocked developing countries”.

The political forum will reconvene at 9 a.m. on Friday, 9 July, to continue its work.