The other issues: Pandemic focus at UN pushes out key topics

At the United Nations this week, Kenya’s president lamented the loss of animal species and called for measures to combat climate change. Slovenia’s president spoke of eliminating land mines, legacies of bygone wars that still maim and kill. And leaders of Iran, Cuba and Libya asked for a lifting of sanctions, hoping to eliminate measures they say hinder development and undermine international cooperation.

Was anyone listening, though?

None of these issues — nor numerous others — is getting lavish attention during this year’s virtual General Assembly leaders meeting, which goes through Sept. 29. Just as the coronavirus pandemic has taken center stage in daily life worldwide, it has hogged the conversation at the biggest of annual international meetings.

That has generated concerns that ground will be lost in tackling other major problems that will be around long after a COVID-19 vaccine is developed and deployed. Some of the other major issues getting lesser attention at the General Assembly this year: climate change, nuclear proliferation, refugee migration, poverty, cyber security and gender-based violence.

“COVID-19 is a massive distraction,” said Mala Htun, a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico. But, at the same time, Htun notes that the coronavirus is putting a spotlight on some big issues.

“Everybody agrees that the pandemic is both creating and revealing many underlying inequalities that the global community and national governments have been trying to address for years,” she said.

Indeed, numerous world leaders have made the connection between fallout from the virus and inequality. That nexus has been the basis for calls that range from a cease fire in all armed conflicts worldwide to renewed efforts for a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestine Authority.

For leaders of several African nations, that connection has been the central argument for reduction, or even complete elimination, of foreign debt.

Listing ways his country has struggled to combat the virus, Malawi President Lazarus Chakwera said he was “hopeful for debt cancellations and extension of a debt moratorium in the meantime.” Niger’s president, Issoufou Mahamadou, was more blunt: “We need to purely and simply cancel this debt.”

Leaders were also using the virus as a frame to highlight other issues.

Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid called her small European nation the “world’s first digitally transformed state, where all public services run online.” She said that thanks to that, combined with the use of digital IDs (something other nations have been slow to adopt because of security concerns), Estonia had a relatively easy transition to doing things virtually. While cybersecurity was a big issue that had to be dealt with as societies go more digital, the benefits could include helping to combat climate change, she argued.

“In a way, the pandemic and its aftermath gives us an opportunity for a great global technological leap,” Kaljulaid said

Still, for all the attempts to tie COVID-19 to problems of the day, little beyond lofty statements was expected on issues that many experts deem urgent to the future of humanity, such as climate change. If it were not for the virus, devastating wildfires in recent years in the Brazilian Amazon, Western U.S. states, Australia and Indonesia, just to name some examples, would arguably have made global warming a much more central topic this year — as it was last year.

The most dedicated discussion expected on the environment is a “United Nations Summit on Biodiversity,” scheduled for the day after the general debate ends. Many world leaders are scheduled to speak. Similar high-level meetings are planned for later next week to promote the achievement of gender equality and the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Many leaders, such as Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, clearly came wanting to make headway on other major issues like climate change. In his recorded address, Masisi described how droughts were impacting animals, which impacted food production.

“This has contributed to animal deaths and the escalation of the human-wildlife conflict,” Masisi said, adding that the country would accelerate commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement aimed at curbing global warming.

Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and an expert on the U.N., said the lack of in-depth discussions around many major issues wasn’t just because of COVID-19. A growing rivalry between China and the United States, two of the world’s most powerful countries, was also capturing attention, he said.

What’s more, Patrick said that the central role that the United States traditionally played in U.N. happenings had changed under U.S. President Donald Trump, who “doesn’t believe in open, international order.”

“When you have a great power rivalry, and the country that has always been the fallback pillar of trying to get something out of the U.N. is absent, it’s hard to have much action,” he said.

For any lamenting the lack of robust discussions on issues not directly related to the coronavirus, there is little question that the pandemic will remain the world’s top issue for some time. COVID-19 has killed nearly 1 million people worldwide, sickened tens of millions more and impacts just about every aspect of daily life.

What’s more, the world’s collective response has lacked coordination and arguably failed, a point that Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made himself on Thursday.

Guterres told a high-level meeting of the U.N. Security Council that there had been “a lack of global preparedness, cooperation, unity and solidarity.” The only solution, Guterres said, was to fortify multilateralism.

“We have no choice,” he said. “Either we come together in global institutions that are fit for purpose, or we will be crushed by divisiveness and chaos.”

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Longtime international correspondent Peter Prengaman is the Western U.S. regional news director for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/peterprengaman

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