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Queen highlights growing global inequality during virtual John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum

Her Majesty says pandemic’s economic fallout increases predicament of global refugee community

By JT - Mar 09,2021 - Last updated at Mar 09,2021

Her Majesty Queen Rania addresses the virtual John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Monday (Photo courtesy of Royal Court)

AMMAN — Her Majesty Queen Rania raised the alarm on growing global inequality caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on Monday, noting that the crisis has exposed and exacerbated long-standing disparities within society.

Speaking live via video call to the virtual John F. Kennedy (JFK) Jr. Forum hosted by the Harvard University Institute of Politics, Queen Rania warned that, “for the first time in 20 years, extreme poverty is back on the rise”, with so many people reeling under parallel pandemics of hunger, violence and increasing illiteracy, according to a statement from Her Majesty’s office.

Her Majesty described this as “a vicious, destructive cycle”, explaining that inequality fuels the global spread of COVID-19, and in turn, the ensuing health, economic, and education crises fuel further inequality.

Addressing Harvard students and faculty in a conversation conducted by Harvard University Professor Melani Cammett, the Queen identified surging inequality as a “defining feature of our world”, crossing geographies as well as income, gender and racial divides.

Noting that low-income countries are less able to devote resources towards pandemic mitigation and recovery, Her Majesty pointed out that “poorer countries simply lack the liquidity to dedicate to stimulus packages that are much needed to resuscitate their economies”.

The Queen explained that the pandemic has “unveiled a tale of two realities”, drawing a comparison between those who could easily work from home and those who could not afford to self-isolate because “staying at home meant they would die of hunger”.

Her Majesty also stressed the pandemic’s impact on women in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, stating that they were already at a considerable disadvantage prior to the pandemic.

“They only account for 20 per cent of the labour force, although they do five times as much unpaid care and domestic work,” the Queen said, adding that lockdowns and school and daycare closures have only deepened this gender divide.

“That is really difficult for moms and their families, but we also need to remember that it’s terrible for our economies,” she warned. 

“According to the World Bank, if we could bring women’s lifetime earnings in the MENA region to equal those of men, then we could add around 3 trillion dollars’ worth of wealth to our region. That’s 3 trillion-worth of lost opportunities.”

Queen Rania suggested that the adoption of flexible work-related practices in the wake of COVID could foster increased workplace inclusivity, for women as well as “people who are traditionally shut out from the workplace because of their circumstances”, such as those with disabilities, single parents, or refugees. 

Arguing that the pandemic’s economic fallout has increased the predicament of the global refugee community, the Queen warned that in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq, the COVID crisis has pushed more than 1 million Syrian refugees further into poverty.

Her Majesty added that the pandemic has even disproportionately affected refugees living in high-income nations, who are at greater risk of unemployment, and pointed that there are those who would use the pandemic as a “political tool” against refugees to stoke panic by attempting to draw a link between refugees and the spread of COVID-19 for political gain.

“What a lot of these politicians and some of the people who vote for them miss is that, in many instances, refugees and immigrants give back to society,” adding that refugees with backgrounds in medicine have contributed to combatting the pandemic in Jordan, France, Peru, and elsewhere.

Referring to the key role played by immigrants in vaccine development, Her Majesty said, “the two co-founders of Moderna and their chief critical scientists are originally immigrants, and so is the chief executive of Pfizer”.

The Queen underlined that these examples “vouch for the power of diversity”, and reminded her audience that “more often than not, refugees and immigrants benefit, not burden economies” as international studies classify them as net job creators, not job takers.

During the forum, Her Majesty also discussed deep-rooted inequalities in education access and reflected on the pandemic’s toll on the state of regional education.

She explained that in the Middle East, one in five children were already out of school prior to the pandemic, and disruptions to education have put an entire generation at further risk, with 40 per cent of schoolchildren in the MENA being cut off from remote schooling in 2020, according to UNICEF.

The Queen emphasised that the COVID crisis should compel the international community to prioritise equal access to quality education, underscoring that this need is even more pronounced in the Middle East because of its unique demographics.

“We have a youth bulge: Close to 70 per cent of our population is under the age of 30. To reap that demographic dividend, we really must make these urgent investments in quality education,” she said, calling for expanding on the hybridisation of education by investing in in-person and remote learning methodologies and ensuring educators are prepared to deliver on those effectively.

Despite shining a spotlight on pervasive inequality, Her Majesty said the crisis has also afforded us an “opportunity to reimagine a new future” and the “impetus to make the changes that are so long overdue”.

Queen Rania also highlighted the role COVID-19 has played in changing attitudes surrounding climate change, and credited the pandemic with increasing people’s awareness of their environmental impact, with lockdowns around the world temporarily contributing to cleaner air and lower pollution rates.

Noting that accountability for the climate crisis has long been shirked by humanity as a whole, Her Majesty expressed optimism that the world is finally taking action. “I think now there is a sustainability revolution underway that is led mostly by young people but that is being heard by everyone.”

The Harvard University Institute of Politics John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum regularly hosts heads of state, leaders in politics, government, business, labour, and the media. The institute’s mission is to unite and engage Harvard students with academics, politicians, activists and policy makers to inspire them to consider a career in politics. Her Majesty was previously a guest speaker at Harvard University in May 2007.

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