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#COVID-19 recovery must ensure resilience for workers and the planet

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We are witnessing a convergence of crises. The world is facing an unprecedented scale of human devastation from COVID-19 and communities are at risk of widespread destitution. The loss of lives is heart-breaking. The economic crisis has caused widespread hardship and uncertainty as swaths of the global workforce face unemployment, loss of income and mass workplace closures. This can only multiply global inequality, writes International Trade Union Confederation General Secretary and Global Commission on the Economy and Climate member Sharan Burrow. 

Meanwhile, the global climate crisis has not gone away. The immediate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic only increase the urgency for climate action. Be it climate or COVID, the pandemic has laid bare how ill prepared we are to manage major risks, and how existing vulnerabilities and inequalities can be exacerbated by a crisis.

In our efforts to recover from the COVID-19 crisis, we cannot afford to ignore the major threat posed by climate change. We must integrate recovery strategies that generate infrastructure, invest in care and jobs that are also part of the climate solution. Bailing out high carbon industries or investing in fossil fuel production risks the very survival of the human race. We can and must tackle both together, in order to save lives and protect workers.

The first wave of government action is necessarily focused on addressing the immediate impacts of COVID-19, stopping its spread and helping those affected by the virus or  unemployment. This alone is a huge task. Many countries are struggling to support impacted workers and communities. One of the missing pieces is a global social protection fund for the poorest of countries. It would take just $37 billion for five years to build resilience for all people in the Least Developed Countries.

The next waves of government response are focused on how to boost growth. In doing so, we must ensure that as the UN Secretary General says we ‘build back better’. Governments and multilateral development institutions will be investing trillions of dollars to address the crisis and reflate economies.

This is a once in a generation moment to accelerate the transition to a more resilient growth model.

The way through this crisis begins first with committing to a new social contract, and second with ensuring that the development pathways we set for our futures are more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient.

First, the new world must be defined by a new social contract. The old social contract is unsustainable, unjust, and has drastically exacerbated impacts of the pandemic. Support for workers and businesses who are committed to rights and sustainability is imperative.

According to International Trade Union Confederation, many countries including Canada and New Zealand have shown commendable leadership in centering people in their crisis response. Now these gains must be maintained, and where there were exclusions, they must be resolved.

It’s time for many more governments to step up. The COVID-19 crisis is expected to wipe out up 300 million jobs in the second quarter of 2020. The IMF’s World Economic Outlook projects a 3% decline in global output, the worst since the 1930’s Great Depression.

The world needs to come together to establish universal social protection for all, to help vulnerable communities overcome this devastation and emerge stronger. We are all in this together.

Second, recovery efforts must mainstream twenty-first century approaches to how we produce, consume and live. These approaches must be more sustainable, inclusive, and resilient, and we must seek and prioritize them in economic recovery packages.

Low carbon investments make more sense than ever. Given rising global unemployment, such investments could boost jobs and generate strong economic returns. Bold climate action could deliver immediate social and economic benefits, including 65 million new low-carbon jobs in 2030.

Recent research shows that green COVID-19 recovery packages, which cut greenhouse gas emissions and stimulate economic growth, deliver higher returns than conventional stimulus spending.

Only one-sixth of countries prioritized green measures in stimulus packages during the global 2008 financial crisis. Those that did provide ample examples of positive results. The United States invested a record amount in clean energy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which supported 900,000 clean energy job years from 2009 to 2015. Findings suggest US investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and public transportation double jobs per dollar compared to traditional alternatives.  In its recovery from the financial crisis, the Republic of Korea spent the highest proportion of its stimulus on green measures globally (about 69%), and rebounded faster than most OECD countries.

More recently, despite their government’s lamentable attack on labour laws and the minimum wage, Indonesia’s Low Carbon Development Initiative (LCDI) established clear evidence of the immediate benefits of a sustainable growth path through ambitious climate action. These benefits include higher employment, faster poverty alleviation, higher GDP growth, and better air quality.

The European Council has also moved swiftly to ensure that a green transition is central to the European Union’s economic response to COVID-19, building on the EU Green Deal announced in December 2019.

This is the sort of action we hope G20 finance ministers meant when they called for a recovery that achieves “strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth” at their meeting last month. But it will take global coherence to ensure we see climate and employment ambition realised.

Instead of propping up already declining industries, we need to ensure a just transition and measures to reset our economic trajectory to help us build back better. Now more than ever, the path to a strong and inclusive recovery runs through uplifting the voices of workers, trade unions, and affected communities, and ensuring their protection.

This is the time to lay the foundation for a new social contract built on just working conditions and sustainable economic growth. With urgent, collaborative action, we can emerge from this crisis more resilient than ever.

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COVID-19 vaccinations: More solidarity and transparency needed 

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MEPs supported the EU's common approach to fighting COVID-19 and called for more unity and clarity during a debate on the roll-out of vaccines and the EU's vaccines strategy.

During a plenary debate on 19 January about the EU’s strategy on Covid-19 vaccinations, most MEPs expressed support for the EU's common approach, which ensured the quick development and access to safe vaccines. However, they called for even more solidarity when it comes to vaccinations and transparency regarding contracts with pharmaceutical companies.

Esther de Lange (EPP, Netherlands) said: “Only more transparency can take away the widespread perception – whether this is justified or not – that often, too often, profit is put before people in this (pharmaceutical) industry.” She praised the EU's joint purchase of vaccines, which led to a stronger negotiation position than individual EU countries would have had: “That means more vaccines for a better price and under better conditions. It shows what Europe can do when we stand united. We can help save lives.”

Iratxe García Pérez (S&D, Spain) warned against "health nationalism" that could damage cooperation on vaccines in Europe. According to her, solidarity and unity is the answer: “If we can keep unity and have equitable distribution of vaccines in member states, we have reasons to believe that 380 million European citizens will be vaccinated by the summer. This is a scientific and health feat that cannot be ruined by parallel contracts and direct purchases." She added: "Let us speak with one voice so that the largest vaccination campaign in history will bring hope back to us in 2021.”

“What are we doing exactly to increase the speed of administering vaccines across the EU?” asked Dacian Cioloș (Renew, Romania). “I know this is a race against time, but in this race we cannot forget that we have a responsibility to do things in full transparency, a responsibility to our citizens to gain their trust. That trust is largely what the vaccination campaign depends on."

Joëlle Mélin (ID, France) said the negotiation of the vaccine contracts lacked transparency. “We are now in the distribution phase and we discover that there are shortages and broken promises from the pharmaceutical companies,” she added.

Philippe Lamberts (Greens/EFA) also talked about the need for transparency and the fact that the European Commission kept the contracts with laboratories secret: “This opaqueness is an insult to democracy. In every single contract the buyer has to know what he or she is buying at what conditions and what price.” He also spoke about potential liability issues: “It is crucial to know who will hold the liability if there were to be negative side effects of the vaccination - would it be the public decision makers or would it be the drug makers? We have no idea.”

Joanna Kopcińska (ECR, Poland) said the decision for the common vaccination strategy was right: “We need an overarching strategy and of course scepticism has a lot to do with a fear that the vaccination is moving slowly, the delivery is maybe late and the contracts are not transparent." She called for the systematic update of treatment strategies and appropriate information campaigns that reach out to everyone.

Marc Botenga (The Left, Belgium) called for more transparency of contracts and responsibility from pharmaceutical companies. He criticised uneven access to vaccines globally, noting poorer regions have difficulties obtaining enough vaccines. “No profit needs to be made on this pandemic and we certainly do not want segregation at vaccinations.”

Plenary debate on the EU global strategy on Covid-19 vaccinations Some of the speakers during the debate on COVID-19 vaccinations  

Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides assured MEPs that their calls for transparency had been heard. She welcomed the fact that the first of the vaccine suppliers had agreed to make the text of their contract available and said the Commission was working to get other producers to do the same.

Kyriakides said she expects to see more applications for the authorisation of vaccines in the coming months. She stressed the importance of a global approach: “No country will be safe and no economy will truly recover until the virus is under control in all continents." She also talked about Covax - the global facility to ensure fair and universal access to Covid-19 vaccines that the EU helped to set up - which aims to purchase two billion doses by the end of 2021, including more than 1.3 billion for lower- and middle-income countries.

Ana Paula Zacarias, the Portuguese Secretary of State for European Affairs who was speaking on behalf of the Council, said the common EU approach, which sped up the process of developing, authorising and securing access to vaccines, must continue to ensure the availability and efficient rollout of vaccines in all member states.

Zacarias said that a number of issues still need to be resolved, including the format and role of the vaccination certificate, a common approach on the use and validation of antigen rapid tests and the mutual recognition of COVID-19 test results.

Backgound: Race for vaccines

From the very beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, the European Parliament has closely followed the vaccine research and development process. The EU coordinated a joint effort to secure the speedy deployment of vaccines against the disease, through the mobilization of hundreds of million euro for research projects and more flexible procedures. Parliament approved a temporary derogation from certain rules for clinical trials to allow vaccines to be developed faster.

MEPs on the health committee repeatedly highlighted the need for public trust in vaccines and the importance of fighting disinformation and asked for more transparency regarding vaccine contracts, authorization and deployment in the EU.

Under the EU Vaccines Strategy launched in June 2020, the Commission negotiated and concluded advance purchase agreements with vaccines developers on behalf of EU countries; the EU covers part of the costs faced by the producers in return for the right to buy a specified amount of vaccine doses in a given timeframe and at a given price, once they are granted market authorisation. So far, six contracts with pharmaceutical companies have been concluded.

After scientific evaluation and positive recommendation by the European Medicines Agency, the European Commission  granted conditional market authorisation to the first vaccine against Covid-19, developed by BioNTech and Pfizer, on 21 December 2020. Vaccinations across the EU started shortly afterwards on 27 December. On 6 January 2021, Moderna’s vaccine was given conditional market authorisation. The vaccine developed by AstraZeneca could be authorised by the end of January.

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EU leaders weigh travel curbs over virus variant fears

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European Union leaders were seeking on Thursday (21 January) to address the coronavirus pandemic’s mounting challenges, including increased calls to limit travel and tighten border controls to contain more infectious variants of the disease, writes .

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said before an evening leaders’ video conference that European countries needed to take the new mutation found in Britain seriously to avoid a third wave.

“We can’t rule out border closures, but want to prevent them though cooperation within the European Union,” she told a news conference in Berlin.

Leaders, who have full control over their own borders, were discussing testing protocols for cross-border commuters, she added.

Alexander De Croo, prime minister of Belgium, where cases per capita are lower than in its neighbours, said he would ask fellow EU leaders to halt non-essential travel, such as tourism.

“The slightest spark could push the figures back up again. We need to protect our good position,” he told broadcaster VRT.

The heads of EU institutions have urged the leaders to maintain unity and step up testing and vaccinations, though Merkel said she expected no formal decisions to be taken at the meeting from 6 p.m. (1700 GMT), the ninth of its kind since the pandemic began.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that blanket border closures made no sense and were not as effective as targeted measures.

Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, whose country relies on commuters from its neighbours, told Deutschlandfunk radio that border closures were wrong in 2020 and still wrong in 2021.

The EU executive also wants member states to agree a common approach to vaccination certificates by the end of January. So a certificate from Estonia would be accepted in Portugal, for example.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis floated the idea last week that they could help restore cross-border travel. Spain is pushing the idea within the EU and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), its foreign minister said on Thursday.

EU diplomats said this was premature as it was not yet clear if vaccinated people could still transmit the virus to others.

“As for (non-EU) third countries, then you’d have to look into whether to accept Russian or Chinese vaccines,” one added.

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Extended lockdown needed to slow spread of COVID mutation - Merkel

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Chancellor Angela Merkel (pictured) on Thursday (21 January) defended a decision to extend a hard lockdown in Germany by two weeks until mid-February, saying it was necessary to slow a new and more aggressive variant of the coronavirus, write Thomas Escritt and Riham Alkousaa.

Speaking at a news conference, Merkel said that while restrictions were showing results in the form of fewer new infections, it would be a mistake to ease curbs given the mutation had been identified in Germany.

“Our efforts face a threat and this threat is clearer now than at the start of the year and this is the mutation of the virus,” said Merkel.

“The findings show that the mutated virus is much more infectious than the one we have had for a year and this is a main reason for the aggressive rise in infections in England and Ireland.”

Merkel said the mutation was still not dominant in Germany and that only a cautious approach could prevent an aggressive rise in daily new infections caused by the new variant first identified in England.

Germany, which has been in lockdown since early November, reported more than 1,000 deaths and more than 20,000 new infections on Thursday. Merkel and state leaders agreed on Tuesday to extend a hard lockdown that keeps schools, restaurants and all non-essential businesses shut until Feb. 14.

“This mutation has been identified in Germany but it is not dominant, at least not yet,” said Merkel. “Still, we need to take the threat posed by this mutation very seriously. We need to slow the spread of this mutation as much as possible.”

She added: “We cannot wait for this threat to hit us, meaning an aggressive increase in infections, that would be too late to prevent a third wave of the pandemic. We can still prevent this. We still have some time.”

Merkel said vaccines can be adapted for new variants of the virus and Germany should be able to vaccinate everyone by the end of the summer.

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