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Exclusive High-Level Side Event to UN General Assembly 2020

On the 22nd of September

Opening Session: Overview: Where we have been and where we are


Remarks of President Tarja Halonen

President of General Assembly, Excellencies, Dear friends,

COVID-19 pandemic is international, national and local challenge. Overcoming this pandemic and its dire consequences require commitment from the international community, all countries and decision-makers, cities, researchers and science community and the private sector alike. This pandemic is not only a health crisis, but also a humanitarian and development crisis that threatens to profoundly shake the social, economic and political foundations, particularly in already fragile, poor and conflict-affected states.

The undesirable effects of the pandemic to poverty, gender equality, or advancing sustainable peace could stop the progress achieved in reaching the sustainable development goals by 2030. Studies show that extreme poverty is rising for the first time in more than 20 years. The number of people experiencing acute hunger may even double.

Moreover, the crisis has dismal impacts on the health and safety of women and girls. Female genital mutilation is projected to increase by 2 million cases by 2030 due to the interruption of anti-FGM programs. Domestic violence against women has been reported to increase in several countries. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that by 2030 child marriages will increase by 13 million cases.

Women are also more affected by the economic consequences of the pandemic, as they work relatively more in the informal economy. The ILO estimates that the income of people working in the informal economy will fall by 81 % as a result of the pandemic.

However, as we have noticed, the pandemic has highlighted the weaknesses of the developed countries too. We have come to realize that traditional military spending does not translate into national security anymore. The national security in the pandemic era requires extensive investments into public health and social welfare.

Overall the path, on which the pandemic is steering us, is an alarming one, and sadly, the most vulnerable ones paying the highest price. However, as countries are withdrawing from the international cooperation, I am also worried about the significant weakening of global norms and institutions. Ever since, the Second World War, the international cooperation has contributed the most to the international peace and security.

The most pressing challenges of our time, climate change, biodiversity collapse, or indeed this pandemic, do not end at national borders and thus cannot be dealt by individual states alone. It is essential to defend the rules-based international order, which is the backbone to international predictability, security and stability. This in turn forms a fertile ground to stable, peaceful and democratic societies. United Nations forms the foundation to multilateral collaboration. Yet, United Nations and its funds and programmes, such as WHO, have been targets of incomprehensible attacks during this pandemic. This should not be tolerated. WHO plays a key role in our international cooperation to overcome this pandemic and should be supported, not attacked.


I’m currently a member of a Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development. The mandate of the Commission is to rethink health care as well as economic and social policies in the wider sustainable development framework to meet the challenges of the pandemic era.

Our aim in the Commission is to contribute to strategies that strengthen our health care systems and make our societies more resilient to future crises. I believe in this work, it is important to prioritize health and social welfare. Moreover, the importance of international cooperation cannot be overemphasized. While for example in the European Union, health care belongs to national level, it is crucial to share best practices and evidence-based recommendations.

Finally, Dear Friends,

I would also like to emphasize the importance of solidarity. It will be important to ensure that when a safe and effective vaccine is developed, it will be globally distributed. This pandemic is indeed global challenge and forms a serious risk to the progress achieved in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals.

However, at the flip side, the crisis offers opportunities to turn our weaknesses into strengths. For example, by including health and social welfare into our understanding of national security, as well as by international cooperation, I believe, we can meet challenges that we are facing. Thank you very much, and I look forward to our discussion.