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COVID-19 demands a collective, rights-based response

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Photo: European Union 2013 - European Parliament

An uncontrolled contagion, no matter where in the world, and no matter how localised, is a threat to all of humanity. Elder and former President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf writes on the need for global cooperation to beat COVID-19 in The Elders' newsletter - sign up here. 

Dear Friends,

As COVID-19 continues to affect individuals, healthcare systems and economies, I am inevitably reminded of 2014, when the Ebola outbreak in West Africa reached its peak.

At that time, the world responded with mass mobilisation and thanks to the efforts of neighbouring countries, the UN, the WHO and the US, we were able to stop the spread of Ebola before it became a global pandemic.

Although the world is in a very different situation to that of the Ebola outbreak, many of the lessons learnt then are equally as important for today, particularly keeping in mind that African nations with developing healthcare systems have already been hit by this virus.

It is essential that nations continue to fight this outbreak together, and not retreat inwards once their own lockdown measures have been lifted. We have already seen unprecedented and coordinated responses at every level: from regional, to national, to international. However, there have also been moments of disappointments, including the decision by the US to halt funding to the WHO at a critical moment.

The world can only defeat a global pandemic with a global solution, and I urge world leaders to increase funding to the WHO to address the most urgent gaps in the COVID-19 response. An uncontrolled contagion, no matter where in the world, and no matter how localised, is a threat to all of humanity, and so it is critical that efforts remain cooperative and international. The Elders have all signed a letter to the G20, coordinated at the initiative of former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown, calling for coordination on health and the economy.

Although the world is rightly focusing on the pandemic, it is crucial not to forget the threat of climate change. The Elders marked Earth Day this year by launching a series of intergenerational blogs on climate action, in solidarity with young climate activists. Our attention has also been focused on the humanitarian aspect of this crisis.

My fellow Elder, Zeid Raad al Hussein, has called for increased protection for detained migrants along the US-Mexico border, who do not have sufficient access to healthcare and other essential services. Similarly, Hina Jilani has called for urgent action to ensure that justice systems and justice workers are protected during this time.

Our three Latin American Elders, Ernesto Zedillo, Ricardo Lagos and Juan Manuel Santos, alongside Elder Emeritus Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have also called for democratic leadership in Latin America and the Caribbean and outlined the steps the region must take to mitigate the worst of COVID-19 whilst also protecting the rights of those who will be hit hardest.

I have joined the call from African leaders for special attention to poor countries, many of them African nations that are fragile and unable to support economic recovery required after the pandemic.

This virus shines a light on our common humanity and shared vulnerabilities. It is only through a collective, rights-based response that all our fundamental interests can be served and our rights protected.

Wishing you all health and safety,

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf


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