Vegetable garden on Albert Waweru’s farm at Kasarani on the outskirts in Nairobi. Credit: Justus Wanzala | IDN-INPS - Photo: 2021

Two Major Conferences Resolute in Combating COVID-19

Viewpoint by Somar Wijayadasa*

NEW YORK (IDN) — The leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) and the Munich Security Conference (MSC) held two meetings virtually on February 19, 2021, as these had to be postponed due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States — meet annually to discuss major world crises issues and to resolve global problems. The virtual meeting was hosted by the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

It is also the first gathering of G7 leaders since April 2020 to discuss how leading democracies can work together to ensure equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines around the world, prevent future pandemics, and end the nationalist and divisive politics that marred the initial response to coronavirus.

The Munich Security Conference was also held virtually, with the participation of US President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The purpose of both events was to brainstorm how to restore the transatlantic alliances and highlight the areas in which transatlantic and international cooperation are most urgently needed.

For four years under Donald Trump, the trans-Atlantic relationship was impaired, and the stature of the US was diminished around the world as many long-time allies watched in disbelief the former President’s empty rhetoric and his anti-science pronouncements on climate change and the coronavirus.

The precarious state of world affairs and the blemished US position with its allies was highlighted in my report on the 2019 Munich Security Conference titled “Europe Ventures to Speak Up Against USA” published in InDepthNews.

It was Joe Biden’s first major multilateral engagement with the G7 and the Munich Conference as president and his first major international engagement since taking office on January 20, 2021.

It is also the first time in its 58-year history, a sitting US president addressed an MSC event — even though Biden twice attended the MSC as Barack Obama’s vice president, and again in 2019.  

Addressing both major meetings, Biden made a passionate case of global engagement and democracy.

“America is back, the transatlantic alliance is back, and we are not looking backward. We are looking forward together,” Biden said. He called the partnership between Europe and the United States “the cornerstone of all we hope to accomplish in the 21st century”.

Biden didn’t mention Trump by name, but alluded to his fights with NATO allies, his “America First” ethos, and pledged his support to that alliance. “I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined to re-engage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trust and leadership,” he said.

“America’s alliances are our greatest asset and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again,” he added.

Coronavirus and the covid vaccine

With COVID-19 affecting 219 countries and territories around the world with approximately 112 million cases and 2.5 million deaths, thus far, and with 500,000 deaths in the United States alone, the major topic of discussion at both meetings was the coronavirus pandemic.

The G7 and MSC leaders with the participation of the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, and the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Ghebreyesus deliberated on the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccine and on financial resources crucial for equitable vaccine distribution.

“Quantum leaps in science have given us the vaccines we need to end this pandemic for good. Now world governments have a responsibility to work together to put those vaccines to the best possible use. I hope 2021 will be remembered as the year humanity worked together like never before to defeat a common foe,” Boris Johnson said. 

Pointing to the dire need for urgent action, Guterres said: “Defeating COVID-19, now that we have begun to have the scientific capacity to do so, is more important than ever”.

“Yet progress on vaccinations has been wildly uneven and unfair,” remarked Guterres pointing out that, “Just 10 countries have administered 75 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccines. Meanwhile, more than 130 countries have not received a single dose”.

Describing the rapid development of vaccines as a literal and figurative “shot in the arm” during the pandemic, WHO’s Tedros reported that while 39 million doses have been administered in nearly 50 richer countries, only 25 have been given in one lowest income nation.

“I need to be blunt,” Tedros said, and added, “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure — and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries”.

“The solutions to the challenges we face — from the colossal mission to get vaccines to every single country, to the fight to reverse the damage done to our ecosystems and lead a sustainable recovery from coronavirus — lie in the discussions we have with our friends and partners around the world” said Johnson.

Prior to the G7 meeting, the UK PM’s Office announced: “International pandemic preparedness will be a major priority for the UK and the Prime Minister will work with fellow G7 leaders to implement his five-point plan to prevent future pandemics”.

The five-point plan includes a worldwide network of zoonotic research hubs, developing global manufacturing capacity for treatments and vaccines, the design of a global pandemic early warning system, the agreement of global protocols for a future health emergency and the reduction of trade barriers.

The COVAX Initiative: WHO’s global vaccination plan

COVAX is designed to pool funds from wealthier countries and non-profits to develop a COVID-19 vaccine and distribute it equitably around the world. Its aim is to deliver 2 billion doses of effective, approved COVID-19 vaccines to people in 190 countries —  mostly to the 92 low-income countries, in less than a year.

On his first day as the US President, Biden re-engaged with the World Health Organization (that Trump abandoned), and joined the COVAX initiative. The US has historically been WHO’s top donor, and at the G7, Biden announced a generous contribution of $4 billion to COVAX.

Saying that a fair distribution of vaccines was “an elementary question of fairness”, Angela Merkel announced funding support worth $1.5 billion.

Boris Johnson agreed to provide £548m ($758) to the project, and pledged that Britain would donate surplus supplies of vaccines to a program that will distribute doses in the developing world.

Other G7 and MSC leaders also announced pledges, and at the end of the meeting, the European Union’s chief executive said that new commitments from the EU, Japan, Germany and Canada had more than doubled the G7’s total support to $7.5 billion.

The WHO welcomed the additional pledges to COVAX noting that commitments for the program now total $10.3 billion — but said that a funding gap of $22.9 billion remained for the campaign’s work this year.

The Director-General of WHO shed a glimmer of hope: “My challenge to all Member States is to ensure that by the time World Health Day arrives on the 7th of April, COVID-19 vaccines are being administered in every country, as a symbol of hope for overcoming both the pandemic and the inequalities that lie at the root of so many global health challenges. I hope this will be realized”. [IDN-InDepthNews – 24 February 2021]

*Somar Wijayadasa, is an International lawyer and was UNESCO delegate to the UN General Assembly from 1985-1995, and was Representative of UNAIDS at the United Nations from 1995-2000. 

Image: Collage of Munich Security Conference and G7 logos by IDN-INPS

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