Humanity represented by the 193-member states of the United Nations (UN) are gathered to discuss the challenges of the world and possibly provide solution. But it has so far been characterised by all sorts of drama, disputes, double speak and hope, quickly overtaken by hopelessness.
The meeting, running from September 21-27, 2021, has been overshadowed by an open disagreement between Europe, united behind a sulking France which made a little veiled boycott, and a gloating Britain still seemingly triumphant in its trilateral military alliance with its two former settler colonies: Australia in the Pacific, and the United States, US, in North America. The last time a French President failed to show up at the UN was 17 years ago when President Jacques Chirac, due to ill health, could not travel.
An angry France had last week recalled its ambassadors to the US and Australia for consultations. French Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian hit Biden, arguing that he is no different from his successor, Donald Trump: “We thought unilateralism, unpredictability, brutality and not respecting your partner was part of the past but it continues; so we want to understand.”
It was the first time in their 243-year relationship France would take such a diplomatic move against the US. However, it did not recall its ambassador to Britain because, as far as France is concerned, that country is a lost case; it is useless to make consultations over it.
The U.S., clearly stung by the French boycott, quickly moved to assuage France with President Biden admitting there should have been consultations with it before the trilateral, and promising to meet President Emmanuel Macron next month in Europe. Based on this, France agreed to send its ambassador back to Washington.
At the summit, which is the 76th UN General Assembly, UNGA, the US is also struggling to regain lost ground as the leader of the so-called ‘free world’. Another shadow hanging over the UNGA which has the theme: ‘Building Resilience through Hope’, is the long one cast by the open sores of humanity as symbolised by the quite brutal conflicts in places like Yemen, Syria and Ethiopia, and the campaign by King Salman of Saudi Arabia for the invasion of Iran.
Taking a back seat is the hope of the UN to “end the pandemic everywhere and reboot the global economy”. Its plan for the summit was for an “inclusive, sustainable and resilient COVID-19 recovery …that will also create jobs, reduce inequalities and improve health and food security, benefiting people, planet and the economy”.
All these seemed to have evaporated from the first day. Even a normally upbeat UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, sounded despondent in his speech to open the debates: “I am here to sound the alarm: The world must wake up. We are on the edge of an abyss -and moving in the wrong direction.” He lamented that COVID-19 vaccines and treatments are being hoarded by the rich, thereby frustrating efforts to curb a pandemic that has already cost 4.5 million lives.
The greatest drama, so far, is that by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro who for long called COVID-19 fake and rejected vaccines. Despite the fact that the pandemic has affected 21.3 million Brazilians and claimed 592,000 lives in the country, the rascally Bolsonaro has refused to be vaccinated or promote the vaccines.
But New York, the city hosting the UNGA will not have such irresponsibility imported, so when Bolsonaro and his entourage, which included Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga, wanted a bite at a restaurant; they had to do it on the sidewalk as New York rules say only persons with proof of vaccination can enter its public places like gyms, cafes and restaurants.
The Brazilians irresponsibly posted on the social media its delegation munching on the sidewalk. The minister also accompanied Bolsonaro into the UN conference hall where he was the first President to deliver his speech. Both also met British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
But the Brazilian delegation left the minister behind in New York because he came down with COVID-19! Boris Johnson who shook hands with the Brazilian Minister 24 hours before had to scurry to carry out a COVID-19 test as did Bolsonario which came out negative. The Brazilian delegation flew back home to isolation, while the British Prime Minster, despite being so exposed to the virus, continues his schedules.
Later in his speech to the assembly, Johnson whose country has been the greatest hoarder of COVID-19 vaccines, warned that unless climate change is tackled, humanity will make “this beautiful planet effectively uninhabitable, not just for us but for many other species.”
Saudi’s King Salman, on Wednesday, gave one of the most ironic speeches at the summit. That kingdom had since March 26, 2015 led a nine-country invasion of neigbouring Yemen. The on-going invasion has, according to the UN, cost 233,000 lives, including 131, 000 indirectly, due to lack of food and medical care induced by the conflict.
But the King in his speech dwelt a lot on his country insisting on non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states. He was particular about Iran’s alleged intervention in the Yemeni Civil War; so what is Saudi Arabia doing in Yemen if not intervening? Salman gave the impression that Yemen is part of Saudi Arabia, so its invasion is not an intervention in that country’s internal affairs.
However, the politics of COVID-19 vaccination is proving to be the most dominant at the Summit. While in Europe, 84 persons per every 100 are vaccinated and 82 in North America, only five out of every 100 persons have been vaccinated in Africa.
Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei lamented: “Those who have access are the most powerful economies forgetting that hoarding of vaccines could end up creating a risk for themselves, if we of the smaller, poorer nations do not achieve the same level of immunisation.”
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, was less reconciliatory. He said COVID-19 booster shots in rich countries at a time when poor nations like his “consider half doses just to get by (is) a selfish act that can neither be justified rationally or morally”.
However, President Biden says the US is committed to vaccinating the world within the next twelve months. To this end, he announced an increase of its promised Pfizer COVID-19 doses to the world, from 600 million to 1.1 billion.
Salutary as this promise may seem, it begs the question. My position is that if the rich world is truly committed to the democratisation of vaccines, it needs to approach it the way the HIV/AIDS retroviral drugs were made available: provide the necessary information, waive its intellectual property rights and allow their generic production. Vaccine technology is not rocket science.
Owei Lakemfa, a former secretary general of African workers, is a human rights activist, journalist and author.