UN chief warns leaders pandemic may cause historic famine

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FILE- In this file photo taken Thursday, April 30, 2020, Women carrying their children lineup to receive vegetables from the Jan Hofmeyer community services in the Vrededorp neighborhood of Johannesburg. South Africa is struggling to balance its fight against the coronavirus with its dire need to resume economic activity. The country with the Africas most developed economy also has its highest number of infections more than 19,000. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, file)

TANZANIA – The U.N. chief on Thursday warned the largest gathering of world leaders since the coronavirus pandemic began that it will cause “unimaginable devastation and suffering around the world,” with historic levels of hunger and famine and up to 1.6 billion people unable to earn a living unless action is taken now.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also told the high-level meeting on measures to help low- and middle-income countries cope with fallout from the crisis that it could lead to “a loss of $8.5 trillion in global output — the sharpest contraction since the Great Depression of the 1930s.”

He called for immediate collective action in six critical areas: enhancing global financial liquidity; providing debt relief; engaging private creditors; promoting external finance; plugging leaks in tax evasion, money laundering and corruption; and adopting a recovery that tackles inequalities, injustices and climate change.

Nearly 50 world leaders spoke by video at the event along with economic experts, including the heads of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But there were noticeable absences, among them the leaders of the world’s two largest economies — the United States and China, which are engaged in escalating tensions over the pandemic and other issues, and Russia.

China’s U.N. Mission said it didn’t participate “due to a scheduling conflict” and submitted a written statement. The U.S. Mission did not respond to requests for a reason why it did not speak. Guterres told reporters later that neither country could participate at a high level, but “there is a commitment from both the United States and China to be involved in this process which we very much welcome.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a co-host of the event, said the U.N. wanted to bring dozens of global leaders and finance experts together because “we need to think outside the box” in dealing with the pandemic.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for “a global recovery initiative” that links investment and debt relief to U.N. development goals for 2030, which include eliminating extreme poverty.

“Europe is ready to put on the table expertise and resources, with both traditional and innovative financing instruments,” she said. “But ... it should be a green recovery, a digital recovery, a just and resilient recovery.”