31st Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Covid-19 pandemic (3-4 December 2020, 14 December 2020)

All sessions are available on: http://webtv.un.org/.

Report and comments, by Marge Berer, 16 December 2020

This Special Session of the General Assembly (GA) was originally scheduled as a two-day event on 3-4 December 2020. On both days, it began at 9:30am New York time and ended late at night. The intention was to give every member of the United Nations the opportunity to make a statement to the General Assembly about what is happening in their countries due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There were also three panels on the second day with speakers and interactive question-and-answer between governments and panellists. In the event, in addition to opening and closing statements, only about 70 of the 160 governments who had asked to speak were able to make a statement during the two days, while none of the six NGOs who had also pre-recorded statements was able to do so. The three panels took place on the second day as scheduled. To fit everyone else in, a further session was scheduled for 14 December 2020, starting at 3pm New York time. Links to all these sessions are provided below. This has been an incredible event to listen too, and very worth watching as much of it as possible, above all the three panels though the whole event gave them far more context and meaning.

Each government statement was a maximum of five minutes. Almost all statements were pre-recorded and shown on video, introduced by the UN Country representative who was in the UNGA hall in New York. Many of the statements were by countries’ top leaders; others were by ministers of state, mainly health or development ministers.

Country Statements – Wearing their most formal, official clothes, not a hair out of place. standing behind a podium or a table or a desk, well-rehearsed, almost without emotion, surrounded by their national flags and/or national symbols, over two long days and nights some 70+ leaders made pre-recorded statements about how their countries were faring after having been hit for the best part of a year by Covid-19. What they articulated, with few exceptions, was a picture of a disaster, shared by all, and a heartfelt call for mutual support and help. They also revealed the extent of unpreparedness, lack of know-how and helplessness in the face of a virus that is transmitted by people breathing on each other.

As perhaps never before, world leaders called for solidarity, actually using the word “solidarity” again and again. Solidarity, preparedness, mitigation, resilience, connectivity, cooperation were called for. As regards finance, debt postponement, debt relief and debt cancellation were all called for – as well as the need for transparency, addressing corruption, and for the cessation of all wars in order for all countries to recover in terms of their economies, food production, education and health care. There were descriptions of health systems unable to cope, which had already been on their knees before the pandemic began, and now were worse. There were concerns that there was not going to be enough food, there was even talk of the threat of starvation among the poorest, a problem that had been relegated to history, and calls for urgent financial support for economies that have suffered terrible blows. Including from countries where climate disasters, in-migration and out-migration have been taking place as well.

In relation to vaccines, everyone who spoke talked about the importance of treating the vaccines as a global public good. A “global public good” means: no patents, no profits, no hoarding. Another definition given was: free of charge to the public, fairly distributed and based on need. There was a call for 20% of the populations of ALL countries to be vaccinated initially, as a first round to cover the most vulnerable people, rather than vaccinating everyone in a few (rich) countries, as would be “normal” if the usual “who can pay wins”/“every man for himself” behaviour was allowed. There were calls for ending discrimination, for equity, for universal health coverage, for promoting sustainable development and leaving no one behind – bringing together all the UN’s interlinking programmatic aims.

There was also evidence presented of unprecedented cooperation taking place between researchers and scientists across the world, the open sharing of information, and an agreement between a large majority of countries – called the COVAX initiative – that has been in the planning for much of this year and will soon begin to be implemented. Equally crucially, speakers identified the close links between the climate crisis, global public health exigencies, addressing grave setbacks in economic development due to the pandemic, and promoting and expanding the green economy as the only way to address what has led to this pandemic and will cause future pandemics, predicted to be coming (just as Covid-19 was predicted already in 2016).

Programme: Opening Statement
Opening of the 31st Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (3-4 December 2020)

Plenaries (3-4 December 2020)
(Part 1) 2nd Plenary Meeting – Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (3-4 December 2020)

(Part 2) 2nd Plenary Meeting – Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (3-4 December 2020)

(Part 3) General Debate of the 31st Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (3-4 December 2020)

Panel 1 – The UN System Response to COVID-19 – Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (4 December 2020)

– Melissa Fleming, Under Secretary General for Global Communication
– Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organization
– Mr Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator
– Ms Michelle Bachelet Jeria, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
– Mr Achim Steiner, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme
– Mr Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
– Ms Inger Ashing, CEO, Save the Children International
– Dr Asha Mohammed, Kenya Red Cross Society

This discussion took stock of the UN system’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It examined comprehensive and coordinated responses of UN entities and partners, focusing on the most vulnerable people and those disproportionally impacted in different operational contexts, including those in low-resource settings, conflict situations, and displaced communities. The role of, and impact on, women and girls was a focus, particularly women as front-line responders. The discussion outlined what has worked well, identify operational and policy gaps as well as lessons learned. It highlighted actions required for the continued immediate humanitarian and health response, protection of human rights, and the launch of urgent economic recovery and social protection measures.

Mark Lowcock, Michele Bachelet, and Achim Steiner were especially excellent on this panel.

A selection of points made by panellists during the session:
270 million people are marching toward starvation – funds have been provided to address this in 2020 but not yet for 2021. It will be catastrophic if funds are not available for 2021. A dozen countries are already at risk. The richer nations are not responding in a way that is commensurate with the need. One of three possible scenarios is 1 billion people living in extreme poverty by 2030. Another is the opposite. Other disasters have not stopped. The climate crisis still threatens the whole planet.

235 million people on the planet may not survive the current humanitarian crises. Poverty is increasing, hunger will grow, major famine threatens, hundreds of millions of children are out of school, and violence against women and girls due to the shocking behaviour of men has been increasing.

$4 billion has been raised from UN members to try and inform everyone on the planet about the virus and how to protect themselves. Social protection payments have been available for 2 billion people and more… yet the challenge is even greater.

It is important not to develop the Covid-19 vaccine at the expense of routine vaccination.

Programmes to protect women & girls are getting the least funding.

Significant shakeout among the NGO sector, many are not sure they will continue to be funded or survive, half of African NGOs are not sure they will survive.

Refugees are particularly vulnerable as well as the millions of people who host them, often in very poor countries of the world where most refugees are being hosted. They need to be considered with a special focus.

The UN Secretary-General has appealed for a global ceasefire in all wars.

Covid-19 is also a child’s rights crisis. There has been a 15% increase in children living in households with financial crisis. Many are not returning to school, many of whom are migrants on the move, and many others are girls. There are 1 billion children aged 2-17 who face violence of all kinds every year.

Women and girls know what they need. We need to listen and respond.

Stopping the virus is not just developing vaccines. We have to stop the virus from jumping from one person to another; that is the existing treatment that everyone can practise.

We need to vaccinate some people in all countries, not all people in some countries.

We need to intensify cooperation and strengthen the architecture of health systems, promote peace and justice. We cannot walk away from the inequities and vulnerabilities that this virus has exposed. Human behaviour has to change, discover mutual respect, solidarity. We need trusted leaders who will encourage people to participate and become part of the solution. Common humanity is what will bring about change. The IMF says $2.5 trillion dollars will be needed to support developing countries, but the money is not yet forthcoming at that level.

Small island states’ economic situation is among the worst in the last 9-10 months. Being a small country in a large world means [sometimes!] being ignored. A more robust international system is needed.

More than 11 million girls are at risk of not going back to school after the pandemic. See the UNESCO video.

Categorising countries as low- or middle-income countries is not adequate for deciding whether to provide funding in these new circumstances, when for example there are hurricanes and help is needed. [Feminists have also said this for a long time regarding countries where women’s issues are treated very poorly but the country is middle income and there is no longer funding available.]

Many NGOs put forward questions to this panel but they could not be heard or answered as time ran out.

Panel II: The Road to a COVID-19 Vaccine – a Global Public Good – Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (4 December 2020)

– Lyse Doucet, BBC Presenter and Chief International Correspondent
Panellists – Part I: The Science
– Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization
– BioNTech: Prof Uğur Şahin and Dr. Özlem Türeci
– Prof Sarah Gilbert, Oxford University/AstraZeneca [Pre-recorded video by Adar Poonawalla, Chief Executive Officer, Serum Institute of India]
Panellists – Part II: Vaccines for All
– Dr Seth Berkley, Chief Executive Officer of GAVI
– Ms Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund
– Dr Richard Hatchett, Chief Executive Officer, Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)
– Sir Andrew Witty, WHO Special Envoy for ACT-Accelerator – on video

Significant progress has been made in developing new tools and strategies in the fight against COVID-19, including vaccines, as the result of unprecedented international collaboration, much-needed investments, and world-class scientific efforts in research and development. The world is at a critical acceleration point in the vaccine development and deployment timeline, poised to turn the corner into the vaccine era of the COVID-19 pandemic. The objective of this dedicated discussion on a Covid-19 vaccine was to breakdown the process of vaccine development and address the ‘infodemic’ around it in publicly digestible terms. How many vaccines are currently being tested and at which stages in the process is each one? How will vaccines be produced and distributed? How is the multilateral system working with governments and private sector partners to ensure the equitable distribution of, and access to, a Covid-19 vaccine as a global public good? How are the financial resources required to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 tools, including a vaccine, being mobilized? What other testing and treatments need to be readily accessible, pending the universal access to vaccines?

This was a fantastic panel. If you watch nothing else, watch all three panels. In all three cases, questions from countries from the floor of the sessions and responses to them by panellists were also very informative.

It was reported that an agreement had been reached that all countries should have access to a Covid-19 vaccine and all countries should initially be able to vaccinate 20% of their populations. One government and UN body after another who spoke during those two long days called for the vaccines to be treated as a “global public good”.

A first step, said the People’s Vaccine Alliance, would be to support South Africa and India’s proposal to the World Trade Organization Council to waive intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments until everyone is protected.

COVAX is the ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to Covid-19 tests, treatments and vaccines. It is one of three pillars of the Covid-19 response launched in April 2020 by the World Health Organization, European Commission and France. It was endorsed by 167 countries, in two ways. Seventy-five countries submitted expressions of interest to protect their own populations and those of other nations through joining the COVAX Facility, a mechanism designed to guarantee rapid, fair and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines worldwide. Those 75 countries agreed to partner with 92 low- and middle-income countries who would be supported to access tests, treatments and vaccines through voluntary donations to Gavi–the Vaccine Alliance, thus involving two-thirds of the world.

This initiative was described in those early days as a ‘tremendous vote of confidence’ in the effort to ensure truly global access to Covid-19 vaccines, once they were developed.

Since this event, the People’s Vaccine Alliance have called for “a transformation in how vaccines are produced and distributed, and for pharmaceutical corporations to allow the Covid-19 vaccines to be produced as widely as possible by sharing their knowledge free from patents. Instead, some companies are protecting their monopolies and putting up barriers to restrict production and drive up prices, leaving us all in danger. No one company can produce enough for the whole world. So long as vaccine solutions are kept under lock and key, there won’t be enough to go around.” They have called for

  • Ensure the vaccine is purchased at true cost prices and provided free of charge to people.
  • Ensure the vaccine is sold at affordable prices.
  • Prevention of monopolies on vaccine and treatment production, by making public funding for research and development conditional on research institutions and pharmaceutical companies freely sharing all information, data, biological material, know-how and intellectual property.
  • Implementation of fair allocation of the vaccine, which prioritizes health workers and other at-risk groups in all countries.
  • Ensure full participation of governments in developing countries as well as civil society from north and south in decision-making fora about the vaccines (and other Covid-19 technologies) and ensure transparency and accountability of all decisions

Panel III: Resilience and Recovering Better from Covid-19 – Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (Covid-19) Pandemic (4 December 2020)

– Femi Oke – International journalist
– Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organization / Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab, Deputy Director General, World Health Organization
– Dr Natalia Kanem, Executive Director, United Nations Population Fund
– Ms Mari Pangestu, Managing Director, Development Policy and Partnerships, World Bank
– Ms Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director, UN Women
– Mr Guy Ryder, Director-General, International Labour Organization
– Mr Robert Piper, Assistant Secretary-General, UN Development Coordination
– Mr Pavan Sukhdev, President, WWF International / UNEP Goodwill Ambassador

Member States/Observers registered to ask a question:
Barbados (on behalf of CARICOM), Canada (on behalf of a group of Member States), China, European Union (on behalf of a group of Member States), Russia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania

This discussion examined the socio-economic impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and considered the path toward a resilient recovery, including the requisite preparedness for future threats. There was a focus in trade and finance, including inclusive stimulus and recovery packages, addressing debt crises ensuing from the pandemic, mobilizing investment that support sustainable solutions and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The discussion highlighted opportunities for accelerating the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals through recovery plans and policies that favour inclusion, sustainability and resilience – such as expanding universal protection; promoting green jobs; making sustainable food systems; and increasing digital connectivity.

31st Special Session of the General Assembly in response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) Pandemic (14 December 2020) 

In this added plenary, seven further videos were shown: five from Member States, one from the Holy See and one from Palestine. In addition, 16 statements from Member States were delivered by Permanent Representatives from the UNGA floor. After two hours of these statements, video statements from three civil society organisations were also shown, including Marianne Haslegrave for the Commonwealth Medical Trust, who raised issues of violence against women, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and unsafe abortion.

Overall, some 129 speeches were made. The fragility of developing country health systems was again noted by one speaker after another. Awareness that no country, rich or poor, can resolve this situation alone was high throughout the three days and nights of this special session. Many countries supported the call for the vaccines to be treated as global public goods, and many supported the Secretary-General’s call for a cessation of war.

A harsher reality is threatening, however
In addition to Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey bringing the Special Session on 14 December to an ignominious end by angry statements against each other, a harsher reality intervened not once but twice from outside the UN General Assembly.

On 8 December, in London, UK, a major spending cut in development aid, announced by the government of the United Kingdom, was reviewed by the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee, which was recorded on Parliament TV Live. This spending cut was one of the first major development aid policy changes made by the UK government in the wake of its decision to dissolve the Department for International Development. This policy change involved reducing the UK’s longstanding legal commitment of 0.7% of GNI for development aid to 0.5%. The Committee were told this represented something like a £4 billion per year cut in the UK’s development aid, which would devastate the poorest recipient countries, such as Yemen and Afghanistan, the most. The UK, it was said, will end the year with a deficit of £400 billion pounds, but not only because of Covid-19; therefore, a £4 billion cut in development aid would do nothing to alleviate that. So the Committee was asked: Is this cut using the pandemic as a cloak for re-prioritising money intended for international aid, e.g. to use it for defence spending, which is due to be increased.

The second even more serious setback was sabotage of the COVAX agreements. Several vaccines are reaching the end of initial trials and some have been submitted for approval and come or are about to come “on the market”… What has happened?

On the morning of 9 December 2020, the BBC published this report: “Rich countries hoarding Covid-19 vaccines”. Based on a report prepared by Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, Oxfam, Global Justice Now, and others – it says poor countries are set to miss out, that there is not enough vaccine to go round being produced, and that pharmaceutical companies should share their technology to make sure more is produced.

The report also said that rich countries have bought enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations three times over if all those vaccines are approved for use. Canada, for example, has ordered enough vaccines to protect each Canadian five times. And even though rich nations represent just 14% of the world’s population, they have bought up 53% of the most promising vaccines so far, according to data from eight leading vaccine candidates in Phase 3 trials that have done substantial deals with countries worldwide.

Unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world may not receive a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 for a long time. Five of the 67 countries who may be left behind – Kenya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan and Ukraine – have reported nearly 1.5 million cases of Covid-19 between them.

So much for this global public good. This adds a closing twist of the knife to the UNGA Special Session proceedings, by governments that would of course not announce this from the floor of the United Nations. But it only means we will have to fight for it, as we do for everything good.

To close on a slighter more upbeat note, WHO D-G Dr Tedros has announced on Twitter:
“Today, @WHO launched the Universal Health Coverage Compendium, a set of tools to help country-level policy makers develop packages of the health services needed to achieve #HealthForAllhttp://bit.ly/34aLZro.

For further reports arising from the Special Session, see www.ngosbeyond2014.org