People must be at the heart of post-pandemic recovery, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told a global meeting that opened on Tuesday to examine the economic and social impact of the crisis.

Although COVID-19 caught the world unprepared, “we cannot let this happen again,” he said in a video message to the Global Forum for Human-centred recovery, organised by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

The three-day forum is being held online and brings together world leaders, heads of international organisations and multilateral development banks, and representatives from employers’ and workers’ groups from across the world.

“We need a human-centred, green recovery that puts people first,” said Guterres.

“Putting people first means achieving universal social protection, the best line of defence against shocks of all kinds and critical to a just transition.”

The UN chief commended the ILO for convening the forum, which comes at a crucial time for countries, economies, families and workers.

As the pandemic grinds on, poverty is rising, inequalities are widening, and household incomes are dwindling, while billionaires have seen their profits soar, according to the top UN official.

Guterres said that the situation is worse for women, as they face rising unemployment and shoulder most of the burden for care.

He warned that without “robust” social safety nets and decent job opportunities, many women will be unable to re-enter the workforce.

Meanwhile, vaccine inequity persists, meaning that richer countries are preparing for recovery as many low-income nations face spiralling debt as well as a massive and enduring jobs deficit.

The Secretary-General further highlighted the critical need for climate action, again recalling that countries are “dramatically off-target” when it comes to limiting global temperature rise.

He said that putting people first means renewing the social contract and making massive investments in their future wellbeing.

Among the key topics of discussion at the forum are the Global Accelerator on Jobs and Social Protection for a Just Transition, which the UN chief launched in September 2021.

The goal is to create at least 400 million jobs, especially in the “green” and care sectors, and to extend social protection to some four billion people who currently are without coverage.

Guterres urged countries to act now to achieve a just recovery, stating that the balance between a global breakthrough and a global breakdown depends on choices made today.

“Let’s meet this difficult moment with our best efforts to unite behind shared solutions for recovery,” he said. “Solutions that spring from solidarity. Solutions that put people first, said Guterres.