G20 leaders promise fair access to coronavirus vaccines

Group says it will ‘spare no effort’ in distributing vaccines and pledges debt relief for poor countries, but final communique gives few details.

Saudi Arabian and foreign media representatives listen to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman remotely addressing a press conference at the G20 summit in Riyadh, on November 22, 2020 [Fayez Nureldine/AFP]

Leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies have said they would ensure an affordable and fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, drugs and tests around the world so that poorer countries were not left out, according to a final summit communique which, however, gave few specifics.

As the coronavirus pandemic rages – having so far infected 58 million people globally and killing 1.3 million – the club of the world’s richest nations adopted a unified stance on the challenges ahead during the virtual gathering hosted by Saudi Arabia.

In Sunday’s communique, the G20 countries said they supported a global project for vaccines, tests and therapeutics – called Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator – and its COVAX facility to distribute vaccines.

“We have mobilised resources to address the immediate financing needs in global health to support the research, development, manufacturing and distribution of safe and effective Covid-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines,” the statement said.

“We will spare no effort to ensure their affordable and equitable access for all people.”

But after a weekend of “digital diplomacy”, their closing communique lacked details on many of the issues dominating the meeting.

“Some of these commitments were made earlier in the year, they are not new,” said James Bays, Al Jazeera’s diplomatic editor.

“There were some very specific demands coming from the aid sector, from charities, from international aid groups and the UN itself,” he added.

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres had said another $28bn (£21bn) was needed to develop vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, including $4.2bn before the end of this year, but the final communique made no mention of these sums.

While richer nations plan their vaccination programmes – with the United States expecting to launch in mid-December – experts warn that developing countries face hurdles that could deny billions the first proven protection against the virus.

On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed concern that no major vaccine agreements had been struck yet for poorer countries.

“We will now speak with (global vaccine alliance group) GAVI about when these negotiations will begin because I am somewhat worried that nothing has been done on that yet,” Merkel told reporters in Berlin after the virtual G20 meeting.

The G20 summit’s final communique was approved unanimously by all countries, but Turkey wanted its “voice to be heard”, according to Saudi Arabia’s Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan. A separate statement from Ankara detailing its views towards the communique was expected to be released later.

Debt relief

Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has cast a shadow on the gathering, as campaigners and families of jailed activists launched vigorous drives to highlight the issue.

But human rights barely surfaced over the weekend, with Western officials indicating they prefer to use bilateral forums to discuss the issue with Riyadh.

Separately, summit organisers said G20 nations have contributed more than $21bn to combat the pandemic and injected $11 trillion to shore up the battered world economy. But the group faces mounting pressure to help stave off possible credit defaults among poorer nations, as their debt soars amid the economic catastrophe stoked by the virus.

It has extended a debt service suspension initiative (DSSI) for developing countries until June next year, but Guterres has led calls for a commitment to extending it until the end of 2021.

The communique did not offer a firm guarantee, an outcome that is sure to disappoint campaigners.

Instead, G20 finance ministers will examine the recommendation when the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meet next spring “if the economic and financial situation requires” an extension by another six months, they said.

With the world in disarray after months of border closures and lockdowns, the group also struck a unified tone on trade, saying that supporting a multilateral system “is now as important as ever”.

“We strive to realise the goal of a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open,” the communique said.

‘We need to see actions’

Moreover, the G20 group said tackling climate change was a pressing challenge and that it was committed to a more environmentally sustainable future.

In a brief speech on Sunday, outgoing US President Donald Trump defended his controversial decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, calling it “unfair and one-sided” and designed to kill the “American economy”.

Differences within the G20 were highly publicised at last year’s summit in the Japanese city of Osaka, when the US demanded the insertion of a separate paragraph on issues such as environmental protection.

Justin Derbyshire, chief executive of London-based aid group Helpage, said the G20 countries had “unfortunately not” made the right commitments to help nations amid the pandemic.

“Words are great, but we need to see actions and the financial support countries need across the world,” he told Al Jazeera.

Derbyshire said in the coming months “early financial support was needed to support hunger and malnutrition that is resulting from the pandemic”.

“The G20 leaders need to look at the growing number of people that are unable to feed themselves – that has risen from 54 million in June to 91 million now, and the World Bank is estimating it will increase to 150 million by mid 2021,” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies