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Mark Lowcock, UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief, attends a news conference at the United Nations, in Geneva, Switzerland, on Dec. 4, 2018.DENIS BALIBOUSE/Reuters

The UN’s humanitarian chief is urging Canada to push international financial institutions to use their financial firepower to help the poorest countries fight the COVID-19 pandemic before it overwhelms their already tenuous ability to prevent mass deaths.

In an interview Thursday, Sir Mark Lowcock, the Briton who has been UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief since 2017, said he hopes the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other global lenders can come together to help stem the pandemic the way they did in 2008-2009, when the financial crisis came close to sinking the global banking system.

He thinks Canada, which is co-chair of the Initiative for Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond, has the moral clout to push the financial institutions and the governments that back them into action.

“During the financial crisis, the world got together and told the international financial institutions to provide exceptional help for the most vulnerable countries, and the world also invested a lot in humanitarian response,” he said. “This year, there has not been that co-ordinated effort to help the very most fragile countries, and we have a much bigger crisis now than what we had in 2018 and 2019 … I am hoping Canada will seize the opportunity to play a leadership role.”

The initiative’s key meeting takes place in New York City on Sept. 29, on the sidelines of the UN’s 75th General Assembly, when heads of state and government will discuss efforts to funnel pandemic-related funds to the poorest countries. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his Jamaican counterpart Andrew Holness and the UN itself are the sponsors of the meeting. Canada’s new ambassador to the UN, Bob Rae, has been briefing the federal cabinet on the effort and has invited Mr. Lowcock, 58, to speak at the meeting.

Mr. Lowcock said he can’t explain the lack of co-ordination among governments in fighting the pandemic, especially in the poorest countries. Italy learned that the hard way when it became ground zero for the European pandemic in February and March. Calls for international assistance in the forms of PPE, medicines, doctors, nurses and emergency mobile hospitals were largely ignored by its European Union neighbours.

He would not comment on the American role in the pandemic response. The U.S. government has given many indications that it’s not willing to back a global co-ordinated pandemic response. On Sept. 1, it announced that it would not support the World Health Organization-led coalition, known as Covax, find and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine worldwide.

U.S. President Donald Trump has blamed the WHO and China for misleading the world about the severity of virus in the early stages of the outbreak. The White House has told the WHO it intends to withdraw from the organization.

Mr. Rae, a former Ontario premier who became Canada’s UN ambassador last month, could not be immediately reached for comment on the UN pandemic-response financing initiative, but he is expected to endorse the UN’s effort to pry new funds from international financial institutions and governments. “This is a global pandemic, which is going to require some global solution,” he said last month in a Global News TV interview. “What we’ve seen so far in a number of countries has been very much focused on each country.”

In a statement Friday, International Development Minister Karina Gould defended Canada’s global response to the COVID-19 pandemic. She specifically pointed to Mr. Trudeau’s development financing efforts at the UN and said the government has been “vocal” on behalf of low-income countries when talking with international financial institutions.

“We are committed to continuing to work with the international community in support of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. Canada recognizes that no one will be safe from COVID-19 until everyone is. Our strong global response is a key part of our domestic response to the fight against COVID-19,” Ms. Gould said.

Since April, the federal government has announced $500-million in humanitarian, development and health assistance to fight the coronavirus and its impacts around the world.

Ms. Gould’s office said Canada will use the Sept. 29 meeting in New York to push international financial institutions to come together to help the low-income countries fight the pandemic.

Mr. Lowcock said about US$90-billion would have to be funnelled into the poorest countries, where infection rates are assumed to be under-reported because of lack of testing.

He said the World Bank and the IMF should be able to cover two-thirds of that amount with greater lending through the IMF’s issuance of SDRs – Special Drawing Rights – a form of international reserve currency. SDRs were used lavishly in the financial crisis, when IMF member countries were issued the equivalent of about US$183-billion.

“These institutions have very big balance sheets and the point of having such huge financial firepower is to use it when you have an extreme crisis, and that is what we now have,” Mr. Lowcock said.

He also hopes the poorest countries will see an expanded debt suspension program under a G20 initiative put in place in the spring, and wealthy countries such as Canada will increase their foreign aid budgets. Many wealthy countries have tried to spend 0.7 per cent of their gross national income (GNI) on foreign development assistance, but few have attained that goal. Canada’s spending in 2018 reached just 0.28 per cent of GNI.

The US$90-billion would go for direct income support in the poorest countries, where many people have lost their jobs and face hunger; immunizations; and support for public health agencies and charities on the front lines of the pandemic.

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