The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted all aspects of our lives. It has changed our traditional way of doing things and has presented us with unusual challenges that we have had to overcome with creativity, innovation and resilience. The Latin American and Caribbean region has been disproportionately affected. In terms of deaths, with only 8% of the world’s population, we tally almost 30% of global victims. Meanwhile, the regional economy has also suffered due to the pandemic, with an expected economic contraction of 8.1% (according to IMF data), which is almost double the expected global average contraction of 4.4%.
At the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), our work in 2020 was inevitably framed in this context. Our efforts were focused on supporting countries in their response to the pandemic and in overcoming its impacts. Of the total of US$13.3 billion approved in 2020, the Bank invested US$6.6 billion in direct response to COVID-19. Now, our mission is to accompany the region on the path to a sustainable recovery that is green, inclusive and resilient. Our most recent sustainability report documents these experiences, from which we have learned several lessons. Here you will find five lessons learned on sustainability from this pandemic.
Lesson #1: The pandemic has underscored that our environment and climate are closely linked to our health
To achieve sustainable development we must harmonize economic growth, social inclusion and environmental protection, since these three elements are interrelated. There can be no sustainable development without climate action and many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) reflect this.
What COVID-19 has reminded us is that health is also closely linked to the environment. Land use changes and climate change increase the likelihood of a pandemic by making zoonoses, diseases transmitted to humans by animals, more and more prevalent. Additionally, air pollution exacerbates the effects of respiratory illnesses and may be contributing significantly to deaths from COVID-19.
Lesson #2: The region still has a long way to go in terms of gender equality and protection of women
Women have been disproportionately affected by the crisis. On the one hand, many of them have lost their jobs, either because they tend to work in the sectors most affected by lockdowns or because they have withdrawn from the labor market to take care of people in their close circles. On the other hand, containment measures, necessary to reduce the transmission of the virus, have led to an increase in domestic violence against women, who have been isolated from the people and resources that could help them.
Recognizing this “silent epidemic”, we are carrying out a project that uses technology to reduce the barriers that women face when seeking support against violence and expands the coverage of services offered to survivors, by including new channels such as digital platforms, WhatsApp and SMS. The project also integrates information systems to centralize records and share information with those responding to calls.
Lesson #3: Digital transformation is key to building greener, more inclusive and resilient societies
COVID-19 forced us to imagine and build a world of limited physical mobilizations. Thanks to online tools, many businesses were able to continue operating through telework and e-commerce, and several students resumed their education at a distance. While it is true that the digital world is not equally available to all and that we must continue working to close this gap so that everyone can take full advantage of the benefits of digitalization, online tools open a world of possibilities to expand service provision, while reducing GHG emissions associated with travel.
For example, an IDB project has contributed to strengthening care modalities through telemedicine in Argentina, specifically targeting vulnerable populations. In 2020, the number of public health offices participating in the national telemedicine network more than doubled. 30% of the offices in which the model was implemented are in rural areas with limited access to specialized medicine, which shows that telemedicine services can help close equity gaps.
Lesson #4: Infrastructure continues to be a driver of inclusive growth and will be a key element of a sustainable recovery
Our societies depend on quality infrastructure to carry out their daily activities and provide all kinds of services. Infrastructure is crucial to maintain our quality of life and to achieve growth and sustainable development. Infrastructure assets are long-lasting, making it even more important that they are sustainable and resilient. Moreover, the development of new infrastructure is labor-intensive, which is why this type of investment is often used by governments to revitalize economies and create jobs quickly after a crisis.
It is clear that recovery cannot consist of going back to how we were before. It is time to seize the opportunity to build low-carbon, climate-resilient and inclusive economies. Sustainable infrastructure can drive inclusive growth and is a key tool for recovery, which is why the IDB is fostering these types of investments. For example, in the Bahamas we are supporting the beginning of the country’s energy transition, in which renewable energy currently makes up less than one percent of the matrix. We also recently launched a series of publications on accessibility and inclusion in public transport that show how public transport systems can play a key role in creating more inclusive contexts, in a region where 66 million people have considerable difficulties in their mobility because they live with some type of disability.
Lesson #5: Decarbonization must be one of the main goals of sustainable recovery
The long-term decarbonization strategies needed to achieve the climate goals of the Paris Agreement are vital to guide the recovery. Building those net-zero-emission economies that we mentioned earlier will require their complete transformation. But far from being an obstacle for development, decarbonization is an opportunity to address pre-existing socioeconomic inequalities and to foster green, resilient and inclusive growth.
Costa Rica has led these efforts in Latin America by launching the region’s first National Decarbonization Plan, which transforms the decarbonization goal into a series of short-term practical steps for each sector. The result is that government regulations work in a coordinated manner to promote green growth. A recent IDB study of the costs and benefits of these measures estimates that the decarbonization plan will bring net benefits of US$41 billion to the country.
As one of the regions most affected by the COVID-19 crisis, Latin America and the Caribbean will have to overcome profound social and economic challenges with inclusive strategies that favor job creation and that lead us to achieve a just transition to climate-resilient, net-zero-emissions economies. If you want to know more about the 2020 lessons learned on sustainability, please download our sustainability report.
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