The world’s rich countries must commit to “doing whatever it takes” to vaccinate the entire planet against COVID-19, including easing intellectual property rules to allow the manufacture of vaccines in developing countries, according to the former president of the UN General Assembly.
In an op-ed titled ‘We need bold global leadership to build back better’, president of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly Maria Fernanda Espinosa underscored that serious reforms are needed to fix the multilateral system to help build back better from the pandemic and address bigger challenges ahead.
She said that “international cooperation is a constant struggle against short-term interests and narrow distributional claims. Serious reforms are needed to fix the multilateral system” that president Franklin Roosevelt helped to build 75 years ago.
“We also need some quick wins that can ease people’s anxieties in the face of a global pandemic and begin repairing the trust that system will need if it is to address the even bigger challenges ahead,” Ms Espinosa, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and of Defence of Ecuador, said in the op-ed.
A decade after the 2009 financial crisis, Ms Espinosa said that against the backdrop of a global health pandemic, climate catastrophe looms larger and economic divisions, within and across countries, have widened further.
“In response to the COVID-19 shock, talk has turned to ‘building back better’. But as we gear up for the climate summit in Glasgow at the end of this year, has the international community learnt the lessons from 2009?” she asked.
The Ecuadorian scholar, diplomat and politician noted that if the pandemic is seen as a “test run of our ability” to overcome differences and work together on global challenges, then there is clearly much work to be done.
Ms Espinosa listed a few “quick wins” that are available that would set the world on the right path.
“First, rich countries must commit to ‘doing whatever it takes’ to vaccinate the entire planet including easing intellectual property rules at the WTO (World Trade Organization) to allow manufacture of the vaccines in developing countries,” she said.
Further, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) meetings in April should agree to a large allocation of special drawing rights — in excess of a trillion dollars — with the details worked out over the summer ready for roll out in October, she said.
Finally, she underlined that creditor countries should allow developing countries to transfer debt service payments to their health budgets for the duration of the pandemic and offer a plan for extending debt relief to the countries in greatest economic distress.
“Similar measures have been implemented in the past. And putting them in place in time for the opening of the Glasgow Climate Conference would provide the sense of solidarity needed and which so sadly alluded negotiators in Copenhagen. The world simply does not have the luxury of getting it wrong again,” she said, referring to the 2009 UN climate summit in Copenhagen that was “torpedoed” by diplomatic wrangling.
The UK will host the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November. It will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.
While “centrifugal forces” have been in the ascendancy over the last decade, Ms Espinosa said there are signs of change.
Ms Espinosa, only the fourth woman President of the General Assembly in its 73-year old history, said in recent months that the European Union has proposed a Green Deal and acknowledged the importance of a common financing strategy. China has promised to hit net zero emissions before 2060 and the new Biden administration has kicked off with a flurry of executive orders that put the fight against climate change at the top of its agenda alongside immediately re-joining the Paris Agreement, she said.
“These are all important initiatives but they don’t speak to the immediate anxieties facing the vast majority of the world’s population where the pandemic has pushed poverty levels higher, triggered a massive jobs crisis, and increased inequalities in all its forms, including a strong setback on women’s rights,” she said.
“To date, multilateral efforts to mitigate these adverse effects of the pandemic do not suggest that international cooperation is up to the task,” Ms Espinosa, the first female Ambassador of Ecuador to the UN in New York and in Geneva, said.
She said that vaccines are a clear case of short-term thinking still in the ascendancy.
“The advanced countries have cornered supply through advanced purchasing agreements, while getting vaccines on time and to scale in developing countries has been treated as a matter of charity rather than global policy,” she said, adding that the resulting damage to overstretched health systems in the Global South will be “devastating” but prolonging the pandemic anywhere will have consequences everywhere.
Ms Espinosa underlined that the “unsatisfactory” global health response is mirrored in the “uncoordinated” global economic response as rich countries spend an average of 20 per cent of their GDP on unprecedented cash transfers, alongside business support and job protection schemes while most developing countries lack the fiscal space and monetary fire power to respond in kind.