G20 leaders back ‘equitable’ global access to COVID-19 vaccines

Twin crises of COVID-19 pandemic and an uneven global recovery dominate first day of G20 summit.

European Council President Charles Michel, on screen bottom, participates in a virtual G20 meeting, hosted by Saudi Arabia, at the European Council building in Brussels [Yves Herman/Pool/AP Photo]

Leaders of the world’s 20 biggest economies will pledge on Sunday to ensure a fair distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, drugs and tests around the world, according to a draft communique and do what is needed to support poorer countries struggling to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

“We will spare no effort to ensure their affordable and equitable access for all people, consistent with members’ commitments to incentivise innovation,” the G20 leaders said in the draft document seen by the Reuters news agency.

“We recognise the role of extensive immunisation as a global public good,” it said.

The twin crises of the pandemic and an uneven, uncertain global recovery dominated the first day of a two-day summit under the chairmanship of Saudi Arabia, which hands off the rotating presidency of the G20 to Italy next month.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which has thrown the global economy into a deep recession this year and efforts needed to underpin an economic rebound in 2021, were at the top of the agenda.

“We are optimistic about the progress made in developing vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics tools for COVID-19, but we must work to create the conditions for affordable and equitable access to these tools for all people,” Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz said in his opening remarks.

“We have a duty to rise to the challenge together during this summit and give a strong message of hope and reassurance to our people by adopting policies to mitigate this crisis,” he told world leaders.

Chinese President Xi Jinping offered to cooperate on vaccines, saying Beijing will “offer help and support to other developing countries, and work hard to make vaccines a public good that citizens of all countries can use and can afford”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin offered to provide Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to other countries, while French President Emmanuel Macron spoke of the need to “avoid at all costs a scenario of a two-speed world where only the richer can protect themselves against the virus and restart normal lives”.

Funding gaps, debt relief

To do that, the European Union urged G20 leaders to quickly plug a $4.5-bn funding shortfall in the global project for vaccines, tests and therapeutics – called Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator – and its COVAX facility to distribute vaccines.

“At the G20 Summit I called for $4.5bn to be invested in ACT Accelerator by the end of 2020, for procurement & delivery of COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines everywhere,” European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter. “We need to show global solidarity,” she said.

Germany was contributing more than 500 million euros ($592.65m) to the effort, Chancellor Angela Merkel told the G20, urging other countries to do their part, according to a text of her remarks.

US President Donald Trump, who lost the US presidential election but has refused to concede to former Vice President Joe Biden, addressed G20 leaders briefly before going to play golf. He discussed the need to work together to restore economic growth, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a summary released late on Saturday.

She made no mention of any US pledge to support the global vaccine distribution effort.

G20 nations have contributed more than $21bn to combat the pandemic, which has infected 56 million people globally and left 1.3 million dead, and injected $11 trillion to “safeguard” the virus-battered world economy, organisers said.

But the group’s leaders face mounting pressure to help stave off possible credit defaults across developing nations. World Bank President David Malpass warned that the G20 failing to provide more permanent debt relief to some countries now could lead to increased poverty and a repeat of the disorderly defaults of the 1980s.

Especially vulnerable are poor and highly indebted countries, which are “on the precipice of financial ruin and escalating poverty, hunger and untold suffering”, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Friday.

To address this, the G20 will endorse a plan to extend a freeze in debt service payments by the poorest countries to mid-2021 and endorse a common approach for dealing with debt problems beyond that, the draft communique said.

The G20 debt relief initiative has helped 46 countries defer $5.7bn in debt service payments, but that is far short of the 73 countries that were eligible, and promised savings of around $12bn.

‘Serious abuses’

As the trailblazing event got under way on Saturday, there had been some early quirks, with someone heard telling King Salman that “the whole world is watching” before the event started, and China’s Xi apparently having to call for technical help.

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.

Key among them are the siblings of jailed activist Loujain al-Hathloul, on a hunger strike for more than 20 days demanding regular family contact.

Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih was asked at a news conference if Saudi Arabia needs to try a different approach to overcome negative headlines, including over the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the imprisonment of critics in an ongoing crackdown.

“Investors are not journalists, investors are looking for countries where they can place their trust in an effective government that has proper economic decision-making,” Falih answered.

Some Western officials have indicated human rights will not be raised at the summit, saying they prefer to use bilateral forums to discuss the issue with Riyadh.

“Instead of signalling its concern for Saudi Arabia’s serious abuses, the G20 is bolstering the Saudi government’s well-funded publicity efforts to portray the country as ‘reforming’ despite a significant increase in repression,” said Michael Page from Human Rights Watch.

Source: News Agencies