ROSARIO, Argentina – According to the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations in Geneva, “tackling crippling external debt burdens” of developing countries could help save millions of lives.

“There is no doubt that the current Covid-19 crisis will more severely affect the lives and livelihoods of those in the developing world,” said Slovenian Archbishop Ivan Jurkovič. “One avenue through which this potentially devastating impact might be softened, and lives saved, is by tackling the crippling external debt burdens accumulated, at both public and private levels, in developing countries over recent years.”

The archbishop’s words came as he was addressing the UN trade and development board July 2.

The prelate, who represents the Holy See in the UN’s Geneva offices, said coordinated action by the international community is of “utmost importance,” as developing countries are already struggling under unsustainable debt burdens or because they are too poor to tackle the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.

“The immediate challenge is to ensure that policymakers have the room and resources to respond to the health shock and to mitigate the accompanying economic damage,” Jurkovič said. “Whether and how this happens will have direct consequences for creating a fairer, more inclusive and resilient recovery.”

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Developing countries owe billions of dollars to international financial institutions and wealthy nations, and the pandemic has made the situation more dire. In April, G-20 countries agreed to suspend debt payments for the world’s poorest countries until the end of 2020.

However, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) were not part of the deal, though back in April the IMF approved $500 million to cancel six months of debt payments for 25 of the world’s most impoverished countries. The international financial institution believes the “great lockdown” could cause the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and has predicted the global economy will lose at least $9 trillion in 2020 and 2021.

Jurkovič said that roots of the crisis were not only economic, but had a moral dimension, adding there was a need for an “ethic of solidarity” that recognized “the primacy of being over having.”

“Over the last decade, we have learned that excessive liberalization and deregulation, allowing for markets and firms to regulate themselves, privileges short-term gains over long-term commitments. Of great concern is the ever-decreasing economic allocation to the health sector and the abuse and predation of the natural environment on which not just economic life, but all human life, ultimately depends,” he said.

Jurkovič quoted Pope Francis’ Easter Urbi et Orbi message where the pontiff called on all nations to “meet the greatest needs of the moment through the reduction, if not the forgiveness, of the debt burdening the balance sheets of the poorest nations.”

The Slovenian archbishop had a busy week at the UN as following his statement to the trade and development board, he addressed the 44th Session of the Human Rights Council on two topics: education and on trafficking in persons, especially women and children.

Jurkovič noted that according to the UNESCO, 90 percent of children around the world were deprived from attending school this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the global health crisis has “highlighted the fragility and fractures of our societies.”

Despite the efforts, many families don’t have the necessary technology nor enough room at home to guarantee that children could continue their education virtually. Not all families are equipped with the necessary information technology tools, nor are they always capable of making accommodations for the continuous presence of their children at home.

The prelate called for governments to acknowledge the role of “non-state” schools have in society, and the efforts they make to provide a broad range of educational choices to parents and communities.

“The fact that many governments refuse to provide funding for such institutions limits the possibilities for children to receive an acceptable and adapted education that takes into account the best interest of the child as well as of values and religious, cultural and social contexts of the communities in which they live,” Jurkovič said.

Lastly, commenting on the UN’s report of the Special Rapporteur on human trafficking, the archbishop noted that it’s a “scourge” that “should have no place in the human family.”

“Human trafficking in its various manifestations continues to be an open wound on the body of contemporary humanity, taking advantage of conflicts, poverty, corruption, lack of education and opportunities as well as, in the last few months, of the emergency situations exacerbated by the COVID19 pandemic,” he said.

Though Jurkovič didn’t give any numbers, it’s been widely acknowledged that human trafficking is one of the world’s three most profitable illegal industries, together with drug trafficking and arms dealing. It’s estimated that between 30 to 40 million people today live and work in slave-like conditions and are sold and trafficked as goods throughout the world.

“Human trafficking is a scourge in our societies because it denies the very dignity of the victim, treating her or him only as a commodity to be traded and exploited for profit, in one of the more dramatic examples of a ‘throwaway culture’ which Pope Francis has repeatedly denounced,” the prelate said.

Jurkovič urged for a universal, concerted approach to tackle this industry, as human trafficking is “typically led by organized criminal networks,” that knows no borders.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma