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Slow Views • The Tortoise Take

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Friday 18 June 2021

The G7 summit was a shiny failure that achieved almost nothing of substance. But it is not too late for richer nations to avert humanitarian catastrophe by vaccinating the world against Covid before the end of 2022

If the G7 summit in Cornwall last weekend had one job, it was to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022. It didn’t come close. World leaders declared victory after promising 1 billion of the 11 billion vaccine doses needed. The politicians failed – and the journalists missed the story.

A slow newsroom has the advantage of taking that little bit longer to figure out what just happened.

We were all misled. On 6 June, in a statement heralding the summit, Boris Johnson appeared to have sensed the scale and gravity of the task. “Vaccinating the world by the end of next year would be the single greatest feat in medical history,” he declared. “I’m calling on my fellow G7 leaders to join us to end this terrible pandemic and pledge we will never allow the devastation wreaked by coronavirus to happen again.”

The summit’s achievement was negligible. True, we learned a lot about Justin Trudeau’s footwear, the etiquette of elbow bumping with Angela Merkel, and the tastiness of lobster barbecues on the beach. There was geopolitical glamour and spectacle aplenty. But that’s about all there was. 

In his remarks to the summit on Saturday, the head of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, could not have been clearer. “To truly end the pandemic, our goal must be to vaccinate at least 70 per cent of the world’s population by the time you meet again in Germany next year,” he said. “To do that, we need 11 billion doses.”

Instead, the summit pledged only 870 million doses – and included in that total all promises already made by the seven nations since February. This is what you’d call a sick joke.

Tedros has also disclosed that the cost of funding global vaccination would be an additional $35-45 billion – a rounding error when compared to the trillions that the G7 nations have spent in their domestic Covid recovery programmes. 

The UK, for its part, offered 100 million doses over the next year. Bear in mind, when assessing the supposed generosity of that pledge, that Boris Johnson’s government has procured 500 million-plus doses of the seven leading vaccines. Its objective is to ensure that all 53 million adults in this country have been offered at least a first dose by the end of next month. 

But, even after the full vaccination of every adult, almost 400 million doses will be left unused and unaccounted for. Who are they for? And when?

Worse, the UK is offering a mere 5 million doses to poorer nations before the end of September. Meanwhile, about 10,000 people are still dying every day, overwhelmingly amongst populations that have not received the jab. According to the latest data presented to the G7 by the WHO last weekend, 44 per cent of vaccinations are being administered in high-income countries, compared to 0.4 percent in poorer nations. 

Gordon Brown, the former UK prime minister, was almost a lone voice on the Sunday of the summit, declaring it an “unforgivable moral failure”.

Two weeks ago, the Tortoise Take urged the G7 summit in Carbis Bay to mobilise a comprehensive strategy for speedy global Covid vaccination. “If they leave without issuing such a plan,” we said, “posterity will not judge them kindly.” 

If Donald Trump were still president, the G7 summit would, no doubt, have been judged as another example of the failure of global leadership and the weakening of the West. Many thousands of people around the world will die as they wait for the vaccine. As they suffer and expire, the virus will continue to mutate, increasing the probability that a variant will emerge that achieves “vaccine escape”. And – to complete the trifecta of idiocy – trust in the global leadership of democractic nations will be further eroded exactly when it is most needed, in the months leading up to the COP26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in November.  

But judgment and disappointment isn’t going to vaccinate the world. We need a campaign: and we look, as ever, to our members and partners for support, ideas and inspiration. Having declared Carbis Bay the washout that it undoubtedly was, let us turn to the action that now needs to be taken:

  • The whole world should be vaccinated by the end of 2022. The WHO’s target of 70 per cent coverage within this time frame may reflect sound epidemiological analysis, but it also gives politicians wriggle room that will inevitably lead to drift into 2023, and perhaps beyond. This is a finite objective, and 18 months is plenty of time to achieve 100 per cent global vaccine coverage.
  • Joe Biden should mark his first Fourth of July celebration as president by declaring – with Boris Johnson at his side – their unambiguous shared commitment to leading an international effort that will provide, distribute and administer the 11 billion required doses by the end of 2022. What better way of making real his administration’s refrain that “America is back” on the world stage as a force for good? And what better way for the PM to show that all his talk of the “indestructible relationship” between the US and UK, and of the surging soft power of “Global Britain”, is more than hot air?
  • Organisations in the international rules-based order (such as Gavi, the Access to Covid-19 Tools [ACT] Accelerator, Unicef, the WHO and WTO) and NGOs (such as the Gates Foundation) need to be mobilised in a much more coordinated fashion so that they can identify bottlenecks now in order to expedite global manufacture and distribution of vaccines in 2022.
  • If ever there was an occasion when business should flex its ethical muscles, this is it. Now is a time for business to stand up and be counted; to show that “corporate social responsibility” is a phrase with heft and content.
  • Where are the influencers now? Apart from the occasional dire rendition on Zoom of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’, they have largely deserted the ethical stage during the pandemic – a very curious contrast to the cultural phenomenon of Live Aid in 1985, in which the world’s most famous pop stars rallied to raise money for famine-ravaged Africa. Comic Relief was founded in the same year. Where are the Bob Geldofs and Richard Curtises of 2021?  

The public gets all this. According to a poll commissioned last month by Global Citizen, Save the Children, the Wellcome Trust and the ONE Campaign, 76 per cent grasp that Britain is still at risk if the virus is thriving elsewhere, and 67 per cent believe that vaccine-sharing should be expedited at once.

Since the pandemic struck the West last year, we have lived through a period of frenzied self-reliance, hoarding and national introspection. But that phase must now end.

This is a campaign we can fight and win. There will be enough doses by the end of 2022 to vaccinate the world. The logistics challenges are big, but, as we have seen, not insurmountable. And there is enough money – in the hands of private investors, the big-hearted public and governments that care both about humanity and their own populations – to ensure everyone gets a vaccine by the end of next year.

And there is absolutely no time to lose. Boris Johnson will recognise Churchill’s formula: Action This Day.