Appeals for united front against pandemic dominate G-20 summit opening

The Saudi king calls on G20 leaders to work towards affordable and equitable access to vaccines and other tools to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sunday 22/11/2020
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz makes a virtual speech during the opening session of the 15th annual G20 Summit, in Riadh, November 22. (AFP)
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz makes a virtual speech during the opening session of the 15th annual G20 Summit, in Riadh, November 22. (AFP)

RIYADH--The G-20 summit chaired by Saudi Arabia opened on Saturday with appeals by the world’s most powerful leaders to collectively chart a way forward as the coronavirus pandemic overshadows this year’s gathering, transforming it from in-person meetings to a virtual gathering of speeches and declarations.

“We have a duty to rise to the challenge together during this summit and give a strong message of hope and reassurance,” Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said in the summit’s opening remarks.

The Saudi king called on G20 leaders to work towards affordable and equitable access to vaccines and other tools to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Although we are optimistic about the progress made in developing vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics tools for COVID-19, we must work to create the conditions for affordable and equitable access to these tools for all peoples,” he said.

Group photo of annual G20 Summit World Leaders is projected onto Salwa Palace in At-Turaif, Saudi Arabia, November 21. Reuters.
Group photo of annual G20 Summit World Leaders is projected onto Salwa Palace in At-Turaif, Saudi Arabia, November 21. (Reuters)

While G-20 countries have contributed billions of dollars toward developing a vaccine for the virus, they have also mostly focused on securing their own vaccine supplies. Countries such as Britain, the US, France and Germany — all G-20 member states — have directly negotiated deals with pharmaceutical companies to receive billions of doses, meaning that the vast majority of the world’s vaccine supply next year is already reserved.

US President Donald Trump highlighted what the US has done to response to the coronavirus and rebuild the economy and work on vaccines, which are expected to become available soon, according to White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany. Trump, however, appeared not to have acknowledged that Joe Biden won this month’s presidential election.

“It’s 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.

A day before the summit, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that while $10 billion has been invested in efforts to develop vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, another $28 billion is needed for mass manufacturing, procurement and delivery of new COVID-19 vaccines around the world.

Guterres called on more G-20 nations to join COVAX, an international initiative to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to countries worldwide. The United States has declined to join under Trump.

The pandemic has had a far-reaching economic impact on developing countries and pushed millions into extreme poverty. It has also plagued the world’s wealthiest nations, with nine G-20 countries ranking highest globally for the most cases of COVID-19 recorded. The United States tops the list, followed by India, Brazil, France, Russia, Spain, the UK., Argentina and Italy, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University.

Saudi King Salman makes his opening remarks at a virtual G20 summit . (AP)
Saudi King Salman makes his opening remarks at a virtual G20 summit . (AP)

Three G-20 leaders participating in the summit have been infected by the coronavirus this year: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Trump.

 Message of optimism 

The International Labor Organisation says an equivalent of 225 million full-time jobs were lost in G-20 countries alone in the third quarter of 2020. G-20 member-countries represent around 85% of the world’s economic output and three-quarters of international trade.

In a sign of the times, the traditional “family photo” of leaders in the summit was digitally designed and superimposed on a historical site just outside the Saudi capital, Riyadh, which would have hosted the gathering. The kingdom has presided over the G-20 this year.

As part of the summit, seven leaders released video messages on “Pandemic Preparedness and Response”. France’s President Emmanuel Macron warned of the challenges in obtaining “universal access to health technologies against COVID-19”. German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for strengthening the World Health Organization and stressed 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 appealed to global leaders to harness the resources of the world’s wealthiest nations to end the COVID-19 pandemic and tackle climate change.

“Our fates are in each other’s hands,” said Johnson.

Bolsonaro, who spent months downplaying the severity of the virus while deaths mounted rapidly inside Brazil, emphasized in a video message that world leaders “should take care of people’s health and of the economy at the same time.”

President Trump also participated in the closed-door virtual sessions that are taking place Saturday and Sunday. It does not appear that any leaders dropped out of the summit, despite calls by rights groups, lawmakers and EU parliamentarians for leaders to boycott the gathering to protest Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and war in Yemen.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the G20 summit via video from Moscow, Russia, on November 21. (AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends the G20 summit via video from Moscow, Russia, on November 21. (AFP)

G-20 heads of state last gathered virtually for an emergency meeting in March as the coronavirus was fast-spreading around the world.

G-20 nations have since agreed to suspend debt payments for the world’s poorest countries until mid-2021 to allow those nations to focus their spending on health care and stimulus programs. The UN secretary general, however, has called on the G-20 to extend debt repayments through the end of 2021 and expand the scope to middle-income countries in need.

King Salman tried to convey a message of optimism. “I am confident that the Riyadh summit will deliver significant and decisive results and will lead to adopting economic and social policies that will restore hope and reassurance to the people of the world, ” he said.