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2 April 2020, Gateway House

The action imperative for G20

COVID-19 unified G20 leaders at an extraordinary summit last week. An idea given a nudge by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, here was an opportunity for all participants to put together a plan and make a pledge for international cooperation, focusing on four main themes. Next, will they be able to turn words into action?

Distinguished Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies Programme

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The extraordinary summit of G20 leaders, held on 26 March 2020 by video conference, was an innovative, even historic, step. In reaffirming its commitment to present “a united front” against the virus that “respects no borders” and “to do whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic”, G20 strove to send out a clear message to an anxious world. Nevertheless, as the summit ended, the question was: will lofty words result in quick and effective action?

At the time of writing, the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine world tracker on COVID-19 showed the following numbers: total confirmed cases –935,817; total deaths – 47,208. These alarming figures are set to increase further in the days to come.[1]

This devastating disease struck the world when the G20 nations’ instinct for multilateralism and global cooperation had weakened; U.S.-China recriminations were running high on a range of issues, including the name and origin of the disease and ascribing responsibility for its spread; and the World Health Organization (WHO) was under fire for its inordinately slow response and unjustifiably delayed declaration of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) as a pandemic.The controversy over the name, with the U.S.keen to term it the ‘Chinese virus’, led to the G7’s failure to issue a joint statement. It therefore came as some consolation when the main actors finally behaved better, agreed to call it ‘COVID-19’ and concentrated on craftingthe way to fight it.

The virtual summit was prepared carefully. Separate meetings of G20 finance ministers and central bank governors, and of the Sherpas took place in the preceding days. The leaders’ summit took place because Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushed for it, talking beforehand with the Russian president, the Australian prime minister and the president of the EU Commission, while nudging Saudi Arabia to lead the way. King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, chaired the summit graciously and effectively.

The summit’s outcome

As the summit’s outcome was shaped by participants’ positions, a quick look at a few of them would be instructive. First, President Xi Jinping presented his four-point formula: resoluteness to wage an all-out war; a collective response for control and treatment; active role by relevant international organisations; and enhancing international micro-economic policy coordination.[2] Those looking for signs of admission of responsibility and expression of regret were in for a disappointment.

Second, PM Modi stressed “the need to put human beings at the centre of our vision of global prosperity and coordination”, while championing the cause of “a new globalisation” as well as the reform of WHO.[3] New Delhi was clear that the world, facing an unprecedented crisis, had no choice but to be united and positive. It should avoid polemics, fixing its sights on a blueprint for decisive action.

Third, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the beleaguered director general of WHO,relied on brevity to convey his message. He urged the world leaders to fight “like your lives depend on it – because they do.”; to unite because no country “can solve this crisis alone”; and to ignite “global production for the tools we need to save lives now.”[4] He said nothing in defence of his organisation facing rising worldwide criticism over initially denying human-to-human transmission in face of evidence to the contrary and failing to advise imposition of restrictions on trade- and tourism-related traffic with China – until it was too late.

The summit’s statement[5] dealt with four key themes:

a) G20 governments agreed to commit “taking all necessary health measures” for containing the pandemic and protecting people. These range from research and development (R&D) to increasing medical supplies and strengthening WHO. Health ministers have been asked to meet and develop “a set of G20 urgent actions” for this purpose.

b) Anxious about prospects for the global economy, participants resolved to deploy “all available policy tools” to minimise the economic and social dimensions and restore global growth.

c) Worried about disruptions to the global supply chains, they agreed to cooperate in ensuring the flow of vital medical supplies as well as agricultural and other products.

d) Enhancing global cooperation was identified as another goal. A short formulation was added to highlight the special needs of “developing and least developed countries, and notably in Africa and small island states”.

Immediate prospects

The statement consists essentially of goals and aspirations at a time when the world expects and needs a solid plan of action. At least on the health-related cooperation front, there is clarity of purpose and mention of the ‘COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund’, but it is voluntary in nature and contributions have been solicited from governments, international organisations, and the private sector. Measures to protect the global economy are far too general and vague. The announcement of a $5-trillion injection into the world economy masks the fact that it will be nothing but a sum total of disparate national financial packages, to be devised and executed by G20 governments as they deem fit. The reference to developing countries and Africa, lacking substance and specifics, is a mere exhortation.

These perceptions compel long-time observers of G20 to maintain that the spirit and strategy that helped vanquish the 2008-2009 financial crisis are not in evidence today; not yet, at least. The G20 statement failed “to convey a spirit of robust internationalism and multilateral cooperation”, asserted a group of three eminent scholars at the Centre for Strategic International Studies (CSIS).[6]

The virtual summit has been followed by a meeting of trade ministers on 30 March. Another meeting of finance ministers is likely to take place shortly. The health ministers, currently preoccupied with battling the pandemic at home, will meet later in April. But by the time they meet, the situation may turn grimmer. Hence, international cooperation has to be stepped up dramatically, keeping in view the fact that the post-war world has not faced a challenge and tragedy as grave as this one.

Another G20 virtual summit, in a few weeks, seems inevitable. With nearly 90% of COVID-19 confirmed cases and deaths occurring in G20 countries, its leaders stand accountable in the court of history.

Rajiv Bhatia is Distinguished Fellow, Gateway House and a former ambassador. He regularly comments on a range of multilateral institutions.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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References

[1] Coronavirus Resource Center, ‘Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at John Hopkins’, John Hopkins & Medicine, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

[2] G20 Information Cemter, ‘Working together to defeat the COVID-19 outbreak’, Munk School of Gloabl Affairs & Public Policy, http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/2020/2020-g20-xi-0326.html

[3] G20 Information Cemter, ‘Press Release on the extraordinary Virtual G20 Leaders’ Summit’, Munk School of Gloabl Affairs & Public Policy, http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/2020/2020-g20-modi-0326.html

[4] G20 Information Cemter, ‘Remarks at the G20 Extraordinary Leaders’ Summit on COVID-19, Munk School of Gloabl Affairs & Public Policy, http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/2020/2020-g20-tedros-0326.html

[5] G20 Information Cemter, ‘Remarks at the G20 Extraordinary Leaders’ Summit on COVID-19, Munk School of Gloabl Affairs & Public Policy, http://www.g20.utoronto.ca/2020/2020-g20-tedros-0326.html

[6] Goodman, Matthew P., ‘Assessing the G20 Virtual Summit’, Center for Strategic & International Studies, 27 March 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/assessing-g20-virtual-summit

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