DUBAI – The Group of 20 summit opened on Saturday with calls from the world’s most powerful leaders to collectively chart the way forward as the coronavirus pandemic overshadows this year’s rally, turning it from in-person meetings to a rally virtual speeches and statements.
The pandemic, which has claimed more than 1.37 million lives worldwide, has given the G20 an opportunity to prove how these bodies can facilitate international cooperation in times of crisis – but also highlighted their shortcomings.
“We have a duty to rise to the challenge together at this summit and to convey a strong message of hope and comfort,” King Salman of Saudi Arabia said in the summit’s opening speech.
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stressed the importance of ensuring equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries when they are ready, according to a senior government official.
“When it comes to our response to new coronavirus infections, it is essential to create an environment where everyone around the world can access medical treatment and vaccines,” Suga said at the meeting.
At the first G20 summit since its inauguration in mid-September, Suga reiterated his determination to host the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics postponed as scheduled next summer “as proof that humanity has conquered the virus,” according to the manager.
He also pledged to continue to play an active role in the international community through key policies such as digitization and the promotion of multilateral free trade frameworks, the official said.
While the G20 countries have contributed billions of dollars to develop a vaccine against the virus, they have also mainly focused on securing their own vaccine supplies. Countries like Britain, the United States, France and Germany – all G20 member states – have directly negotiated deals with pharmaceutical companies to receive billions of doses, meaning the vast majority of next year’s global vaccine supply has already been booked.
US President Donald Trump highlighted what the United States has done to respond to the coronavirus and rebuild the economy and work on vaccines, which are expected to become available soon, according to Kayleigh McEnany, White House press secretary. Trump, however, did not appear to have acknowledged that Joe Biden won this month’s presidential election.
“It has been a great honor to work with you and I look forward to working with you again for a long time,” Trump said, according to audio obtained by The Guardian. The South China Morning Post reported similar comments.
A day before the summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that while $ 10 billion had been invested in efforts to develop vaccines, diagnostics and therapies, an additional $ 28 billion was needed to mass manufacture, purchase and delivery of new COVID-19 vaccines around the world.
Guterres called on more G20 countries to join COVAX, an international initiative to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to countries around the world. The United States refused to join Trump.
The pandemic has had a huge economic impact on developing countries and pushed millions of people into extreme poverty. It has also hit the richest countries in the world, with nine G20 countries ranking first in the world for most recorded COVID-19 cases. The United States tops the list, followed by India, Brazil, France, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom, Argentina and Italy, according to a tally maintained by the University Johns Hopkins.
Three G20 leaders attending the summit have been infected with the coronavirus this year: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Trump.
The virus shows no signs of slowing down as major cities in the United States and Europe bring back lockdowns and curfews. The World Health Organization says more cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the past four weeks than in the first six months of the pandemic.
According to the International Labor Organization, the equivalent of 225 million full-time jobs were lost in the G20 countries alone in the third quarter of 2020. G20 member countries account for around 85% of global economic output and three quarters of international trade.
A sign of the times, the traditional “family photo” of the summit leaders was digitally designed and layered on a historic site just outside the Saudi capital Riyadh, which is said to have hosted the rally. The kingdom chaired the G20 this year.
As part of the summit, seven leaders posted video messages on “Pandemic Preparedness and Response”. French President Emmanuel Macron has warned of the challenges to achieve “universal access to health technologies against COVID-19”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for strengthening the World Health Organization and stressed that the pandemic can only be overcome if an affordable vaccine is available to all nations.
In a video statement released ahead of the summit, Johnson called on world leaders to harness the resources of the world’s richest countries to end the COVID-19 pandemic and fight climate change.
“Our fate is in each other’s hands,” said Johnson, who plans to attend two virtual events at the summit while isolating himself at his London home after coming into contact with someone who has been tested positive for COVID-19.
Bolsonaro, who spent months downplaying the severity of the virus as deaths rose rapidly inside Brazil, stressed in a video message that world leaders “should take care of people’s health and the economy. at the same time”.
Trump also participated in the closed-door virtual sessions that take place on Saturday and Sunday. Leaders do not appear to have dropped out of the summit, despite calls from rights groups, lawmakers and MEPs for leaders to boycott the rally to protest Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the war in Yemen.
G20 heads of state virtually last gathered for an emergency meeting in March as the coronavirus spread rapidly around the world. At the time, they pledged to “do whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic”.
G20 countries have since agreed to suspend debt payments for the world’s poorest countries until mid-2021 to allow those countries to focus their spending on health care and stimulus programs. The UN secretary-general, however, called on the G20 to extend debt repayment until the end of 2021 and expand the scope to middle-income countries in need.
“I am convinced that the Riyadh summit will produce significant and decisive results and lead to the adoption of economic and social policies which will restore hope and comfort to the peoples of the world,” King Salman said.