UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. General Assembly president opened the world body’s first special session on COVID-19 Thursday, calling it a historic and overdue moment of reckoning to forge a path to end the pandemic that not only ensures people everywhere have access to vaccines but mobilizes financial resources for “an inclusive and resilient recovery.”
Volkan Bozkir said the world is looking to the United Nations for leadership and action “to address the greatest challenge our world is facing today.”
“This is not a time to point fingers,” he said. “We have convened here to forge a path forward and to end the suffering of the people we serve.”
Nearly 100 world leaders and several dozen government ministers are scheduled to speak during the mainly virtual special session that began with Bozkir asking masked ambassadors and diplomats from the U.N.’s 193 member nations in the assembly hall to stand in silent tribute to the 1.5 million people who have lost their lives to COVID-19.
The assembly president called the session “a test for multilateralism” and said what the world must do is clear — ensure fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, work together “to protect the most vulnerable countries,” ensure adequate resources for an economic recovery that goes beyond pre-pandemic levels, and ensure that policies adopted ensure human rights and don’t undermine democratic institutions.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that from the start of the COVID-19 crisis early this year, the World Health Organization provided factual information and recommendations that should have been the basis for a coordinated global response. But unfortunately, many recommendations weren’t followed, and some countries ignored or rejected the guidance.
“And when countries go in their own direction, the virus goes in every direction,” he reiterated.
“Nearly a year into the pandemic, we face a human tragedy, and a public health, humanitarian and development emergency,” Guterres said. “For the first time since 1945, the entire world is confronted by a common threat, regardless of nationality, ethnicity or faith. … The social and economic impact of the pandemic is enormous and growing.”
While vaccines may become available in the next weeks and months, the U.N. chief stressed that “a vaccine cannot undo damage that will stress across years, even decades to come.”
He pointed to rising numbers of people facing extreme poverty, the looming threat of famine and the prospect of “the biggest global recession in eight decades.”
Guterres said these impacts aren’t due to COVID-19 alone but are the result of long-term inequalities and injustices exposed by the pandemic that must be addressed.
He welcomed steps to help developing countries but said “they are totally insufficient for the scale of this crisis,” noting that many low- and middle-income countries are being forced to choose between providing basic services to their people or servicing debts. They need immediate support “to avert a liquidity crisis,” he said.
Guterres strongly backed WHO’s ACT-Accelerator to develop and distribute vaccines that includes Covax, an ambitious but troubled global project to buy and deliver virus vaccines for the world’s poorest people, saying there is a $28 billion financial gap “including $4.3 billion urgently needed for the next two months.”
The two-day special session will not be raising money to finance vaccine immunizations or taking any political action, and there will be no final declaration, just a summary document from Bozkir.
“The real point of this special session is to galvanize concrete action to approach our response to COVID-19 in a multilateral and collective way,” General Assembly spokesman Brenden Varma said Wednesday. He added there are currently many responses to the pandemic, but what’s needed now is to bring together all countries, U.N. actors, the private sector and vaccine developers.
Leaders and ministers from over 140 countries will deliver prerecorded speeches on Thursday after an in-person opening in the General Assembly including speeches by Bozkir and Guterres.
Among the leaders slated to address the session are French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and European Union chief Charles Michel. The United States will be represented by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
Friday’s session will focus on three virtual panels, the first on the U.N.’s response to COVID-19 and the second on vaccines that will include representatives from producers BioNTech and Oxford University-AstraZeneca, and the World Health Organization’s ACT-Accelerator, which is working to get vaccines to the world’s poorest people. The final panel is on recovery from COVID-19. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is expected to participate in all three panels.