Two years ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked me to serve as his special envoy on humanitarian and refugee issues. My report titled A Global Crisis Requires a Global Response was completed just as I was taking up my duties in New York City as UN ambassador. The thrust of my report can be summarized in this excerpt: “Demonstrating the ability to promote collective and cooperative responses to crises such as the global pandemic is a moment to prove the value of multilateralism as a concept, and to prove the doubters wrong. At a time when many are claiming that the idea of a rules-based international order and collective action is a relic of history, demonstrating the ability of the international community to collaborate to resolve one of the greatest challenges of our time can serve to resuscitate the very notion of collective action over unilateralism.”
The last two years have seen both steps forward and backward as we have tried to cope with all aspects of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the loss of millions of lives, health-care systems around the world stretched beyond their limits, vaccination inequity, profound economic and social impacts, and an unprecedented challenge for the world community that has yet to be met. COVID-19’s impacts are far from over; indeed, its effects will be with us for a long time.
Our political leaders are elected, or at least sustained, by people living in 193 countries. But the problems they are being asked to deal with are global. This means our global institutions have to be strengthened, not weakened, and our words must be matched by our deeds.
Let’s start with the positive side of the ledger. There was an agreement to work with two international facilities, COVAX and Gavi, as well as with a number of other regional institutions, to allow wealthier countries to share money, vaccines, and various medical supplies and treatments with countries around the world. Billions of dollars have been raised and spent. The scientific community working internationally succeeded in some innovative discoveries that meant vaccines were developed in record time. About half the world’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine. Global vaccine supply is growing in 2022.
On the economic front, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and regional development banks have taken steps to avoid a deeper global collapse as a result of the measures required to shut down due to the pandemic. The wealthiest countries, joined de facto by China, agreed to delay interest payments on debts owed by lower-income countries. The IMF agreed to a special allocation of US$650 million in Special Drawing Rights. In addition, donors agreed to create trust funds to allow transfers to lower- and middle-income countries whose revenues had collapsed at a speed previously unknown in the global community. Discussions continue on what further steps might be undertaken.
In addition to these multilateral responses, individual countries have engaged in what has been dubbed “vaccine diplomacy” to transfer vaccines, technology and development assistance on a bilateral and, it must be said, opportunistic basis to offset the health, social, economic and political impact of COVID-19. South Africa recently announced the opening of a drug-manufacturing facility in Cape Town, applying Moderna’s formula.
And yet, these efforts are far from enough. The poorest countries have received the least access to vaccines, the least economic investment, the least help with liquidity, and, as a result, have fallen further behind. The gap between rich and poor countries is growing, and so is the digital divide. We are facing deep humanitarian and political crises in countries where hardship has always been present, but where now the situations can only be described as desperate. The consequences of this inequity will be deeply felt for a generation. The much-touted UN Sustainable Development Goals will not be close to achievement by 2030. A billion-and-a-half children around the world have missed school. Millions will not return, especially girls, and this will come at huge costs throughout their lifetimes in lost incomes and opportunities.
The French Revolution was fought for liberty, equality and fraternity — the latter we would now call “solidarity.” The concept of sustainability was little known at that time, but now it is rightly seen as just as important as these other core values. The reality of our time is that the values and targets we endorsed in the UN Charter, and in any number of covenants, contracts, treaties, resolutions and speeches, are words and hopes that are yet to be fulfilled.
We shall not defeat this pandemic (or fight climate change) without global vaccination, which requires more solidarity, not less, and more globalism and a deeper understanding of what it means to live on a single planet, to share a single atmosphere and to live in a world that is shrinking. Our political leaders are elected, or at least sustained, by people living in 193 countries. But the problems they are being asked to deal with are global. This means our global institutions have to be strengthened, not weakened, and our words must be matched by our deeds.
This article first appeared on TVO.org.