British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosted last week a major international vaccine conference raising over £6 billion in governmental pledges. At a time when London has been widely seen to be withdrawing from the world with Brexit, this is only the latest example of how it is helping lead the global response to the pandemic.
On May 3, for instance, Johnson co-hosted with countries in Europe, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Japan a virtual global pandemic pledging conference which kick-started a monthlong international investment drive ahead of this week’s vaccine event which he has called the “most urgent shared endeavour of our lifetimes”. This last few weeks of activity builds on other recent actions, including by the G20, G7, plus the IMF and World Bank.
In April, for instance, the G20 took a range of measures including suspending debt payments by developing countries from May until the end of this year so that those nations can prepare for increased spending on health care during the pandemic. The decision to suspend both principal repayments and interest payments covers all the International Development Association countries that are currently on debt service to the IMF and World Bank, and at least all developed countries as defined by the UN that are currently on any debt service to the IMF and World Bank.
For the UK’s international partners, its leadership of this agenda is a hopeful signal that — post-Brexit — London will remain at the vanguard of global developmental policy.
Yet, despite these initial moves, more action is badly needed, and this week’s conference came in a context whereby the UN has warned last week of “unimaginable devastation and suffering around the world” unless countries act together now. UN Secretary-General António Guterres painted a picture of 60 million pushed into extreme poverty; a famine of “historic proportions”; some 1.6 billion people left without livelihoods; and a loss of 8.5 trillion dollars in global output — the sharpest contraction since the 1930s Great Depression. As he highlighted, there is a danger now of interconnected threats that could threaten to undo decades of international development work in what is becoming not just a health crisis but also a humanitarian and economic one too.
These challenges are not just of grave import for the developing world, but also for the industrialised world too given the warnings of Guterres that the pandemic will “circle back around the world” in a second wave if they do not help poorer nations with weak health care systems cope. This is especially so in a context of deep recessions across many emerging markets.
Part of the challenging picture comes from a, separate, potential crisis brewing among the leading development charities arising out of slowed disbursements from governments and other donors. Development charities are having problems in implementing projects whilst their in-country teams are in lockdown.
This tragic picture was the framing for last week’s conference. At a time when UK foreign policy has become largely focused on Brexit, the pandemic has provided a way to renew London’s international leadership in a context where the country has itself suffered at least around 40,000 deaths from the pandemic.
Call for mass production of vaccine
Johnson said at the conference that the battle against coronavirus must see governments work more closely together to build a shield around international populations, and that can only be achieved by developing and mass producing a vaccine. He also asserted that the more we pull together and share expertise, the faster scientists will succeed in the race to discover the vaccine to prevent future waves of infection and end this pandemic as quickly as possible, and argued that by strengthening health systems in developing countries, London and its partners can play a part in stopping the global spread of coronavirus to save lives everywhere.
The United Kingdom has led the way on this agenda, pledging £388 million in aid funding for research into vaccines, tests and treatments, including £330 million a year over the next five years to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. This donation is part of a larger £744 million in UK aid commitments to help end the pandemic and support the global economy, including £250 million for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to develop vaccines against coronavirus — the biggest such donation to the fund by any country.
While Donald Trump last week ended US membership of the World Health Organisation (WHO), London has taken a very different path pledging £200 million to the UN, WHO and charities to help slow the spread of the virus in vulnerable countries. Of that funding, £130 million will go to UN agencies, including £75 million for the WHO which is coordinating the global response to the pandemic. .
In the United Kingdom too, work is also progressing at pace on vaccine development. Last month, for instance, the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca announced a partnership to support large-scale manufacture and potential distribution of a vaccine being trialled by the university.
Taken together, last week’s conference therefore has bolstered, significantly, the international response to the pandemic which has been set back by Trump’s WHO decision. For the UK’s international partners, its leadership of this agenda is a hopeful signal that — post-Brexit — London will remain at the vanguard of global developmental policy.
— Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics