The world’s 20 most powerful economies pledged Sunday to lead a global battle against the coronavirus health and economic crisis — even as their own virtual gathering revealed the risks of national competition for the quickest access to vaccines and other therapeutics.
In a 10-page communique, coordinated by Saudi Arabia, which held the G20 presidency this year, the leaders promised to help the poorest countries, not only to obtain vaccines and other treatments but also by extending a debt-relief program initiated in the first stage of the pandemic, which has allowed developing nations to forestall $5.7 billion in debt service payments so far.
“We remain determined to support all developing and least developed countries as they face the intertwined health, economic, and social effects of COVID-19, recognizing the specific challenges in Africa and small island developing states,” the leaders said after their meeting, this year conducted via videolink due to the extraordinary health situation.
But their declaration also painted a sober picture of the continuing health and economic crisis.
While some parts of the world have begun to rebound, the leaders said, “the recovery is uneven, highly uncertain and subject to elevated downside risks, including those arising from renewed virus outbreaks in some economies, with some countries reintroducing restrictive health measures. We underscore the urgent need to bring the spread of the virus under control, which is key to supporting global economic recovery.”
They added, “We are determined to continue to use all available policy tools as long as required to safeguard people’s lives, jobs and incomes, support the global economic recovery, and enhance the resilience of the financial system, while safeguarding against downside risks.”
But in initial interventions on Saturday, some leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Donald Trump and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, stressed the success of vaccine development in their own countries, which to some listeners suggested a clear sense of global competition among the richest and most powerful countries in the race to counter the pandemic. Public health experts have urged an equitable distribution of vaccines focused on clear priorities, such as immunizing front-line health care workers and vulnerable populations first.
Some public health experts have warned that developing countries may need to wait for a lower-cost vaccine that is easier to store and transport than some of the most promising vaccines based on mRNA technology that may start being distributed late next month. China and Russia have already begun administering their own vaccines despite questions about whether they faced sufficient safety checks.
At a news conference, after King Salman formally closed the summit, Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan insisted that the G20 would help the most vulnerable, even as more funding is needed.
“There [are] obviously shortages but there is clear commitment … to ensure equitable distribution of vaccine to every country,” Al-Jadaan said. “I think the key message that I would want to leave with you all today is that every single leader was supportive of the G20 initiatives to ensure that we provide enough resources to ensure that the vaccine and therapeutics [are] available to everyone.”
He added there was “very clear recognition from the G20 leaders that if we leave any country behind, we will be behind. So we cannot resolve this issue in certain parts of the world because the rest of the world will suffer. If one country suffers, we will all suffer.”
European Council President Charles Michel used his summit speech on Sunday to reiterate his call for an international treaty on pandemics, under the umbrella of the U.N. “Let us be ready to mobilize to negotiate an international treaty on pandemics,” Michel said. “Indeed, this would be an opportunity to work within the multilateral framework by strengthening the role of the United Nations and especially of the World Health Organization, so that we can better prevent the risks of pandemic.”
In a statement after the summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she had urged leaders to provide more money for their joint vaccine program. “I am glad that G20 leaders agreed to make Covid-19 vaccines available and affordable for all. But more funding is needed,” von der Leyen said. “This is why I called G20 Leaders to commit to fund $4.5 billion.”
In their communique, the leaders reiterated their annual commitment to supporting international trade and restated their resolve to fight climate change. For the first time since Trump took office in 2017, the U.S. did not quibble over the climate language — a move that was interpreted as reflecting Washington’s closeness to Riyadh and the fact that technically the U.S. has quit the Paris climate accords, rather than any shift in policy.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris agreement, and while Trump has so far refused to accept his election defeat, courts in the U.S. continue to rule against his efforts to challenge the results, suggesting he will indeed be out of office in January.
But while the U.S. was mainly cooperative, Turkey raised an objection to the climate language, tied to a longstanding complaint of how it can’t access climate financing from the $10.3 billion Green Climate Fund. Turkey, because of a quirky diplomatic designation, falls in between the categories of developed and developing countries and as such neither gets, nor gives, funding to help cope with climate change.
To overcome the Turkish objections, the Saudi presidency issued a separate statement, attached as an addendum to the final communique, taking note of Ankara’s position.
At the conclusion of the summit, Saudi Arabia handed off the G20 presidency to Italy, which next year plans to organize a global health summit.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte insisted that his country, hard-hit by the pandemic, would rise to the challenge. “Italy is ready,” Conte said.
“We are aware of the scope of our responsibility but also of the difficulty of our task,” he said, adding: “The health and socio-economic answer to the pandemic, which has caused and continues to cause immense suffering to mankind and has already struck significant blows to the global economy, will obviously continue to be at the top of our agenda, to keep high the commitment of the international community in the reaction to COVID-19.”
Karl Mathiesen contributed reporting.
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