This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
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COVID-19 has exposed a range of unsustainable features of the status quo at both state and international levels, acting as a stress test for institutions, practices and assumptions about how the world works. But it has also given rise to principles for resilience and justice that can both help resist existential threats and build a better future. It has demonstrated the vital importance of social infrastructure and caring professions, both hitherto undervalued; and shown that collaboration and compassion are not only morally compelling, but in the interests of society at large. As the next phase of the pandemic takes shape, these ideas could provide the basis for a new, more equitable social contract: one that prioritises reducing inequality, acting on the climate crisis and delivering on the promises of the Sustainable Development Goals. Girls and young women are demanding that we use this moment of crisis as a revolutionary reset; and we must listen.
Failures of the status-quo
COVID-19 has shone an unforgiving light on our societies and economies. We have seen poor housing conditions and insufficient access to healthcare exacerbate the spread and deadliness of the virus. Low wages, insecure work and gig economies have made workers highly vulnerable to poverty, job insecurity and unemployment. Legacies of underfunding and austerity have left public services creaking under the pressures of the crisis in both high- and low-income countries. The devastating effects of climate change on agriculture, combined with COVID-related disruptions to supply chains, continue to threaten some of the world’s most vulnerable communities with unprecedented food insecurity. And the inherent instabilities in our global economy increase the likelihood of recession, with the most fragile developing economies at greatest risk.
More on the Forum Network: Mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food and nutrition of children at school by Denis Machuel, CEO, Sodexo
And it is girls, women and young people who suffer most. Among young people still in work, almost half have experienced a reduction in income, with young women and those in lower paid jobs the hardest hit. Lockdowns have seen an explosion of gender-based violence, while inadequate social protection systems leave girls, women and LGBTQ+ young people without the support they need. As traditional custodians of the “care economy”, the burden of care work has shot up for girls and women, meaning millions of girls will never go back to school. And as families face unemployment and destitution, girls and young women are subjected to child marriage, trafficking and exploitation.
Building back better
COVID-19 must serve as a wake-up call to address these injustices. It has changed the way we frame policy discussions and created space for a new global consensus. I would like to outline three lessons we can – and must – take from the pandemic if we are to build back better.
First, the crisis has strengthened the argument for investment in social protection systems, including universal health care. If resilience to shocks is a new priority, it means increased emphasis on “stabilisers” that can smooth out the bumps when crisis hits and protect the most vulnerable in society, the majority of whom are girls and women. These services must address the specific needs of adolescent girls and include fully funded sexual and reproductive health services. The COVID-19 vaccines that are soon to be approved for use must be distributed fairly to all who need them.
Second, it has demonstrated that radical changes to how we live that benefit our planet are possible, including a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions. Governments must recognise the rights of young people and future generations to a healthy environment, and resource a radical shift from fossil-fuel dependent economies to green, sustainable and inclusive economies that prioritise people and the planet over profit.
On our OECD COVID-19 Hub: Building a coherent response for a sustainable post-COVID-19 recovery
Third, the pandemic has highlighted the dangers of insecure work and the gig economy, but also the essential nature of low-paid work such as care work, which is overwhelmingly performed by women. These jobs are vital to the continued functioning of society, yet poorly remunerated and highly vulnerable to economic shocks. As part of a just and feminist recovery, governments and the private sector must work together to create decent, stable, green jobs with pro-worker conditions, and strengthen girls’ and women’s opportunities for future job markets, including digital and technological skills training.
The road ahead
Making these changes will not be easy. Without action on international tax evasion, trade deals that are fair to developing economies and debt cancellation for the world’s poorest countries, governments will not have the resources they need to invest in social infrastructure. And none of these issues can be tackled unilaterally. Addressing global pandemics, the climate crisis and the inherent injustices and instabilities in the global economy will require robust international co-operation. We must demand the right multilateral structures without which we lack the tools to create a fairer world.
The way forward is challenging and complex, and solutions are often elusive; but at this time of pivotal global change, we cannot afford not to engage with these issues. We know that crises weigh heaviest on girls: if we really want to achieve a better world for girls, we must learn from the shortcomings exposed by COVID-19 and create a new global economy that is more sustainable and less volatile, and in which the fruits of progress are more equally shared. It’s time for a new global consensus. Girls have called for a revolutionary reset. So must we.
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