Viewpoint by P.I. Gomes
Dr P.I. Gomes is former Secretary-General of the Organisation of African, the Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS), previously the ACP Group of States.
PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad and Tobago (IDN) — The commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the United Nations in January 2020 was acknowledged world-wide and accompanied by the Declaration, Our Common Agenda, containing Twelve UN 75 Commitments.
These Commitments are: Leave No One behind; Protect Our Planet; Promote Peace and Prevent Conflicts; Abide by International Law & Ensure Justice; Place Women & Girls at The Centre; Build Trust; Improve Digital Cooperation; Upgrade the United Nations; Ensure Sustainable Financing; Boost Partnerships; Listen To & Work with Youth; Be Prepared.
While the Anniversary is conceived as a Moment for Reinvigorating Multilateralism and not displacing the UN Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), one reasonably expected that the “Twelve UN 75 Commitments” would have served, in early 2020, as a clarion call for action on critical global concerns.
For the poor countries of the global South, those formidable Commitments could have been paths to transform the everyday lives of the great majority of our world. This view received reassurance in the 75th Anniversary deliberations that recognised “2021 must be the year we change gear” and underlined the need for “a multilateral system that is inclusive, networked and effective”.
But today, a year later and as we approach the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA 76) from September 14, 2021, questions can rightly be asked on what has been “inclusive” or “effective” in regard to the stated Commitment “Leave No One Behind”?
The COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point to legitimately question, such a “commitment” in the face of millions of persons in low and middle-income countries who are “left behind”; expected to trust promises of vaccines from the rich countries meant to prevent hospitalisation or death of the poor. Continuing unfolding of devastating effects of the pandemic appears to be but another example of high-sounding proclamations in a long history of UN conferences, summits and gatherings that promise so much and deliver so little.
Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic
The initial Declaration of UN 75th Anniversary’s Twelve Commitments preceded the official announcement on January 30, 2020, by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that SARS-CoV-2 was an outbreak constituting a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Then followed WHO’s declaration of a pandemic on March 11, 2020. In regard to this global issue of the pandemic, multilateralism in practice is best summed up by operations of the COVAX facility.
Under co-leadership of the WHO and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), the COVAX facility, with assistance of GAVI, a global alliance on vaccine deliveries and UNICEF, the UN agency for children’s well-being, is intended to accelerate development, manufacture and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines and guarantee fair and equitable access worldwide.
Overall, recent data, as of August 28, 2021, indicate that more than 5.29 billion doses have been administered globally. Of this amount, 39.4% of the world population having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. But the lopsided and unequal situation is such that “only 1.7% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.” (https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus). It is not surprising that African Union’s Special Envoy for procurement of COVID 19 vaccines, Mr. Strive Masiyiwa, was harsh in his criticism of COVAX for failing to inform that “key donors” had not met funding pledges.
In view of this, understandably, open criticism greeted the pledge by the Group of 7, the world’s highest per capita income countries (Canada, France Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and USA), at their meeting of June 11-13, 2021, in London, of one billion doses (sic) in a year’s time. It was meant to be their commitment for the global South: “leaving no one behind”!
The UK’s offer was for 100million doses and US President Biden said the US would donate 500 million vaccines; and Canada expected to commit a sharing of up to 100million doses.
As Reuters reported, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown saw the G7 pledges more akin to “passing round the begging bowl” than a real solution. According to Oxfam’s health policy manager, “If the best G7 leaders can manage is to donate 1 billion vaccine doses then this summit will have been a failure.”
Oxfam also called on G7 leaders to support a waiver on the intellectual property rights (IPR) behind the vaccines. This was opposed by the multinational pharmaceuticals whose control of intellectual property and profits take precedence over pledges for “poor and middle-come countries”. So too did the US and UK oppose a waiver of IPR.
The production, access, distribution and administration of vaccines, the single most significant scientific instrument to fight the pandemic and save humankind, according to the WHO, of necessity requires 11 billion doses of vaccines for at least 70% of the world’s population. Facing this reality, it was no surprise that in response to the G7 promise of one billion doses, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said more was needed.
He was quoted saying: “We need a global vaccination plan. We need to act with a logic, with a sense of urgency, and with the priorities of a war economy, and we are still far from getting that.” (Reuters, June 12, 2021).
Lacking both a sense of urgency and committed action by wealthy countries, an opportunity for genuine multilateral action through COVAX was lost. The crude self-interest by the wealthy of the world is visible in the disparity of rates of persons vaccinated across the globe.
Evidence is undeniable that “poor and middle-income countries” are being left behind. For instance, according to the percentage of persons vaccinated with, at least one dose, it is in the UK 64%; in the EU 57.6% and among the G7 some 55%. The glaring contrast is that in Mozambique only 2.2%; Kenya 1.8% and Zambia 1.5% have been so vaccinated. (COVID-19 vaccine tracker FT ig.ft.com).
Geo-political interests smack multilateralism
Despite the glorious UN’s 75th Anniversary Commitments of Member States—Leaving No One Behind—the power and influence of the wealthy G7 primarily serve national interest at the expense of the poor majority of countries. But this is so irrational and short-sighted. It jeopardises their own safety from the SARS-CoV 2 virus and its variants that respect neither geography, wealth nor pious pledges.
These and related circumstances emphasise the need for the global South to rethink its multilateral role and be a counterfoil to how power and self-interest intersect and undermine the scope and relevance of multilateral diplomacy. Billionaires of the South, joining forces with public authorities, might well be mobilised in trans-regional partnerships to serve the needs of the poor across the globe. This could be a meaningful contribution to “eradicate poverty in all its forms everywhere” (SDG #1). [IDN-InDepthNews – 03 September 2021]
Photo credit: United Nations Common Agenda. www.un.org/en/un75/common-agenda
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