Multilateralism’s failure to tackle our biggest challenges is compounding them

Our collective failure to end the pandemic now will cause even deeper and more costly problems in the future

A medical worker in Madagascar in full PPE sanitises their hands while testing people for covid/19

At the Global Health Summit in May 2021, G20 leaders declared that the pandemic“will not be over until all countries are able to bring the disease under control and therefore, large-scale, global, safe, effective and equitable vaccination … remains our top priority.” 

Campaigners could be forgiven, then, for feeling optimistic that meaningful action to address vaccine inequity would be taken at the G7 leaders’ meeting in Cornwall in June, or the G20 finance ministers’ meeting in Venice in July. Alas, they have been sorely disappointed. The members of the G7 pledged to share just 870 million of their 3 billion surplus doses by the middle of 2022, a paltry sum compared with the 11 billion doses that are urgently needed to reach global herd immunity. And the G20 produced little more than excruciatingly vague “support for collaborative efforts” on global vaccine distribution. Meanwhile, since that grand declaration in May, covid-19 has continued to wreak havoc around the world: an additional 400,000 people have died as the global death toll has ticked past four million. Africa finds itself in the grips of a truly devastating third wave of infections, with only 1.4 per cent of the continent’s population fully vaccinated.

There will be a price to pay for this inaction even beyond the untold human cost. Our collective failure to end the pandemic now will create and compound even deeper and more costly problems in the future. The immediate knock-on effects, including for the West, will be severe. But this historic failure of multilateralism is also undermining the trust and incentives necessary for effective international cooperation on the other existential challenges of the day – most notably, climate change. 

In the short term, for as long as the virus is raging anywhere in the world, variants will continue to emerge that have the potential to send us all back to square one. The World Health Organisation warned last week that there is a “strong likelihood” that more dangerous variants will develop that may be even more challenging to control, underlining that “the pandemic is nowhere near finished”. 

We’re already seeing the damage that can be done by such variants, even in highly immunised countries. Cases are rising in Australia among fully vaccinated people due to the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant. The United Kingdom, having vaccinated 68 per cent of its population, is now facing worker shortages, with up to 20 per cent of the workforce in some firms self-isolating. In June, a covid-19 outbreak at China’s Yantian port threatened to hold up 5 per cent of global freight capacity. These disruptions are, in turn, contributing to rising inflation due to increased commodity prices.

But the economic impact of the ‘great divergence’ in the global pandemic response is just beginning. Last year, the International Chamber of Commerce estimated that vaccine hoarding by rich countries could cost the global economy $9 trillion, half of which would be borne by rich countries facing supply chain disruptions. 

In the medium term, the needlessly prolonged pandemic is likely to undermine global security and stability. Pandemic-driven social unrest is on the rise around the world, including in Africa. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has warned that frustration over governments’ handling of the crisis, as well as mounting inequality and corruption, may lead to “a new wave of unrest” that could hinder the recovery from the pandemic, especially in developing countries.

Again, we’re already seeing this play out. Nigeria reported recently that the pandemic has worsened the security situation in the country, as 100 people have been killed during a nationwide lockdown. Nigerian Minister of Interior Rauf Aregbesola attributed the killings to the frustration caused by rising unemployment and restrictions on movement. In South Africa, more than 70 people have been killed and over 1,300 arrested amid riots triggered by the jailing of former president Jacob Zuma. The health ministry warned that the country’s vaccination rollout and other essential healthcare services have been severely disrupted, and there are also reports of an impending food shortage. The European Asylum Support Office warned that the risk of conflict-related displacement is likely to increase due to the pandemic – raising the spectre of the 2015 refugee crisis, which pushed the EU’s multilateral institutions to the brink of collapse.

Of course, the greatest threat to global stability is climate change. There are depressing parallels between the international responses to the covid-19 pandemic and climate change. Like the climate crisis, the pandemic reveals a lot about our inability to act in our own enlightened self-interest when faced with an urgent and obvious threat, and provides overwhelming evidence of the humanitarian and economic costs of inaction. As so eloquently argued by the Financial Timess Martin Wolf, “even against such a self-evidently global threat, where the costs are huge and immediate, we seem unable to act with essential urgency,” and, consequently, when it comes to the climate, “it is impossible to imagine we will do much more than fiddle while the planet burns.” 

Needless to say, truly global cooperation is required to effectively address the climate crisis, which is arguably an even more complex and profound problem than covid-19. But the trust and goodwill such cooperation demands have been decimated by the West’s short-sighted nationalism in the face of the pandemic. It is hard to overstate the anger that vaccine inequity has created in Africa, where a meagre 4.3 vaccines have been administered per 100 people (compared to 77 per 100 in North America and 75 per 100 in Europe). 

We have the resources and capabilities to end the pandemic everywhere; it is simply a matter of political will.

Strive Masiyiwa, vaccine envoy to the African Union, explained last month the steps he had taken to buy vaccines from pharmaceuticals companies only to find that the supply for 2021 had been bought up by G7 nations: “the people who bought those vaccines and the people who sold them those vaccines knew there would be nothing for us,” he told the Milken Institute. “Am I surprised? No, during the AIDS crisis, it took eight years between treatments being available in rich countries and being available in Africa. It’s the old movie again.”

The African countries with the highest vaccination rates – Egypt, Morocco, and Seychelles – have relied heavily on Chinese vaccines. China is projected to produce as many doses this year as India, the United States, and Europe put together. But, even then, Africa has received just 26 per cent of China’s global donations, and China sold just 5.6 per cent of its supply of vaccines to Africa. Some prominent African business leaders and philanthropists have already concluded that they can no longer rely on others. They are now focused on manufacturing vaccines on the continent. One such leader privately told me, “we never want to have to rely on the West again.” 

One can only wonder, with growing pessimism, about the implications of all of this for future international cooperation. What likelihood is there now that meaningful action will be taken on climate at November’s COP26 summit? What chance for progress at the landmark EU-African Union summit, which will no doubt be marred by vaccine inequity? 

Despite the rather bleak outlook of global affairs, covid-19 is a solvable problem. We have the resources and capabilities to end the pandemic everywhere; it is simply a matter of political will. World leaders need to take a number of urgent actions to deal with the situation. 

Firstly, the US and European countries should share their unused doses – starting today. Analysis of Airfinity data by my organisation, the ONE Campaign, shows that as the vaccine rollout slows the US will produce between 55m and 110m more vaccines than it is able to administer every month until the end of the year, by which time the country will have stockpiled up to 400m surplus doses. The EU, with a population of 450m and a vaccination rate of 79 per 100 people, is projected to produce in excess of 1.4 billion doses before the end of the year.

Secondly, the G20 should support and fully fund a plan to achieve global herd immunity through scaled-up vaccine supply and rollout, aiming to reach 40 per cent of the world’s population this year and 60 per cent by mid-2022. The IMF, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, and the World Health Organisation have endorsed a $50bn plan to achieve this. But no country has stepped up to support it. Part of this plan should include more action to reduce trade-related barriers to scaling up vaccine production by addressing export restrictions on vaccines and raw materials, as well as by addressing intellectual property-related constraints.

Thirdly, the agreement to create $650bn in special drawing rights now moving through the IMF’s bureaucracy should be accompanied by a plan for advanced economies to transfer all their allocations to poor countries. Currently, wealthy nations will receive $400bn under the agreement – none of which they need. There is no credible economic, epidemiological, or strategic reason for not taking these steps now. The only explanation can be a lack of political foresight and courage.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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