Birthdays During a Global Pandemic

By Noeleen Heyzer

Birthdays pose an excellent time for individuals and countries to reflect on their achievements.

Birthdays invite us to reflect on the past as well as to look forward and reimagine the future. Singapore is celebrating its 56th birthday in 2021 while the United Nations has just turned 75 in the midst of a global pandemic. The Covid-19 global pandemic is more than a health crisis. It is fundamentally a human crisis. No one is untouched. No economy nor society has been spared. But everywhere vulnerable communities have suffered the most. Managing Covid-19 has forced borders to close, disrupted global supply chains, and destroyed industries and small businesses, creating new vulnerability and joblessness on a scale not seen in peace time. Addressing vulnerability and social inclusion should be at the very core of a sustainable recovery. No one is safe until everyone is safe. By failing to protect the health and well-being of our vulnerable, we put our entire society at risk. Only an inclusive public health and socio-economic response will help suppress the virus, restart our economies, and open opportunities to build a world that is more inclusive, resilient and sustainable beyond the pandemic.

In the overwhelming context of the pandemic response and recovery, global institutions are looking for new ways of working and engaging with citizens—reshaping governance from the ground up and connecting community conversations to global dialogues for the well-being of people and the planet. The 75th Anniversary of the United Nations, the 25th Anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, and the 20th Anniversary of Security Council 1325 on Women, Peace and Security in 2000 started a process of global reflections and conversations initiated by the UN Secretary General (UNSG), Antonio Guterres. The results are striking. People, especially women and youth, want an effective people-centred multilateralism, pushing the system beyond its comfortable boundaries of inter-state cooperation. In the words of the UNSG, “People are thinking big—about transforming the global economy, accelerating the transition to zero carbon, ensuring universal health coverage, ending racial injustice and ensuring that decision-making is more open and inclusive”. Coming out of the Covid-19 crisis, protecting the global commons and building cohesive and caring societies will require a whole-of-society and whole-of-the- world approach that is driven by values of solidarity, strong institutions, and public services that deliver. We are challenged to create a locally rooted global system with alliances between citizens, cities, and governments that can respond effectively to ensure the well-being of diverse peoples and communities.

Throughout my leadership journey in the world of multilateralism, my constant focus has been on harnessing the power of institutions to make a real difference to the lives of people at the margins by bringing governments and their bureaucracies closer to their often ‘forgotten citizens’. As the Executive Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, my team and I highlighted the cost of gender discrimination when policy makers ignore the experiences of half the population, and their contribution to development. In our work on economic empowerment, peace and security, ending violence against women, and political empowerment and governance, we advocated for and supported women in diverse contexts to take leadership and participate meaningfully in economic and social life. I have always believed that good social policies can only be designed if decision makers engage with real people on the ground, listening to their concerns and aspirations, and bringing women’s perspectives directly into policy making. This will help to renew trust and the social contract to establish the economic and social foundations for a more stable and fairer future for individuals, families, and communities.

It is with joy that I witness how, on its 56th birthday, Singapore has embraced an inclusive society based on gender equality. We now know that gender barriers make our society poorer as they devalue and overlook women’s work and creativity, and ignore women ‘s experiences and expertise. Our political leaders and decision makers are now more informed of the importance of removing gender barriers for both men and women, for our youth, our daughters and our sons. As we celebrate 56 years, Singapore has declared 2021 to be the Year of Celebrating SG Women and that, to quote the Minister for Law and Home Affairs, K Shanmugam, “every boy and girl must grow up imbibing the value of gender equality”.

More than 100 dialogues with over 1000 participants have reviewed issues affecting women, as more Singaporeans realise the importance of engaging women as part of the solution to the Covid-19 response and recovery. We know that women make up the majority of caregivers and healthcare workers, both on the front line and at home, caring for children, ill family members and the elderly. We also know that women migrant workers are overrepresented in the hardest-hit sectors— manufacturing, textile and garments, hospitality and tourism, care and domestic work—and in the most vulnerable jobs with the least protection, as casual and daily wage workers in informal employment. At the same time, many women and girls face greater risks of violence as we impose at-home isolation.

Birthdays are wonderful opportunities to create new pathways, assessing where we want to go and how to get there. As we come together to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, we need different perspectives to reimagine new possibilities and formulate inclusive and innovative solutions. Using a gender-equality lens to better understand the impact of the pandemic and to inform the response, actively engaging women’s organisations in decision-making, is crucial for a more resilient Singapore. For this to become reality, we need a mindset and behavioural change involving government, the private sector, civil society, faith-based organisations, citizens, and decision makers at all levels to ensure life-work balance, to value care work and to end all forms of discrimination against women.

I had the opportunity to experience our public institutions and services at work supporting the social and mental well-being of our aging population, the women who are the ‘older old’ in low-income communities. Singapore is known for its world-class health system, public housing, infrastructure and effective governance. But I did not expect to find an eco-system of support for home-based health care for elders with disabilities until I took care of my disabled aunt of 92 years during the pandemic as an ordinary citizen. From the Agency for Integrated Care to St. Hilda’s Community Services to the Home Nursing Foundation, the nurses, the physiotherapists, the co-ordinators and the persons in charge worked as a seamless collective. They kept me fully informed with regular updates and phone calls. When I needed to urgently employ a Filipino caregiver just before the closure of borders, the Ministry of Manpower facilitated her recruitment in the quickest time and St. Hilda’s Community Services dedicated hours to train her with a new set of skills. When my aunt was given a bath at St. Hilda’s, I was impressed with the equipment available for severely disabled elders. These excellent facilities were in an old HDB estate with a large aging population, restoring dignity to the vulnerable. I saw an example of locally rooted innovation that the multilateral system is seeking, to build global health governance from the ground up.

Most of all, I witnessed a mindset and behavioral change which could be upscaled toward becoming a more caring and inclusive society, harnessing our full human potential to build a resilient Singapore that can thrive in the post-Covid-19 world and for many birthdays to come.

Dr Noeleen Heyzer was an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations (2007-2015) and the highest ranking Singaporean in the UN system during her term. She was the first woman Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific since its founding in 1947, and the first woman from outside North America to lead the UN Women’s Fund as Executive Director. Currently she is a member of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Advisory Board on Mediation. She is the author of “Beyond Storms and Stars: A Memoir” (Penguin 2021). 

GovInsider and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2021 edition of The Birthday Book: Are We There Yet?

The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 56 contributors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on where Singapore is today, where we came from, and where we might be going.