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Multilateralism on a ventilator: Africa, Covid-19 and COP26

Jens Pedersen
By Jens Pedersen

** Writing in private capacity Senior Policy Adviser Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), Southern Africa, having worked in various humanitarian contexts (since 2007), as well as representing the organisation to the African Union, and other African institutions. Pedersen has published on the politics of pandemic and peace and security matters in Africa. Mr Pedersen holds an MSc in Humanitarian Studies from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

W. Gyude Moore
By W. Gyude Moore

Senior Policy Fellow at the Center for Global Development (CGD). He previously served as Liberia’s Minister of Public Works with oversight over the construction and maintenance of public infrastructure from December 2014 to January 2018

Posted on Friday, 22 October 2021 10:36

Security officers and airport workers receive boxes of Moderna coronavirus vaccine after their arrival at the airport in Nairobi, Kenya Monday, Sept. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

During the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, developing countries were left to face the economic and health effects on their own, undermining trust in the multilateral system.

When African and other developing countries consider the upcoming COP26. They may well do so with two recent beliefs/observations at heart.

One is that during the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, poor countries have learned the hard way, that promises and assurances of support from the world’s wealthiest country disappear in the face of collective threats.

As the virus spread, these countries have largely fared worse and been left alone to face the economic and health effects on their own. The response of wealthier countries around global vaccine supplies and manufacturing can arguably be seen as bad faith engagement. 18 months into the pandemic, there is still no viable global plan. Across the developed world, life is returning to normal, while developing nations still grapple with the fallout.

When 75 nations circulated a letter calling for an end to “vaccine nationalism”, the notable absences included the UK, the US and Canada.

Secondly, this bifurcated response to the pandemic has significantly undermined trust in the multilateral system at exactly the moment when collective action is needed.

While it is convenient to blame former President Trump for degrading multilateralism, the effective outcomes have continued even after he has left office.

Not only did the early days of the pandemic reveal a tendency for countries and regional unions to put in place various export bans, more worryingly, developing countries were left with false hope and little faith in the multilateral institutions and frameworks intended to respond to the pandemic.

The problem with COVAX

Take COVAX, for example, the multilateral vaccine procurement and distribution structure. COVAX has struggled to meet its resource needs while also being unable to secure vaccines due to hoarding by wealthier countries.

It has thus been undermined, while it was simultaneously touted as an integral part of the global response. This has so frustrated Africans that Strive Masayiwa, the AU Vaccine Envoy and coordinator of the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, wondered aloud if COVAX was intentionally meant to delay African effort to negotiate directly with vaccine manufacturers. This is the extent of the erosion of trust in the multilateral system.

At the most recent meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), a succession of African Presidents decried this in the strongest possible terms. Ghanaian president Nana Akfuo-Addo, went to the crux of this when saying that wealthy countries and regions have played foul and provided primarily warm words but little actual response living up to the words of support and responsibility.

Namibian President Hage Geingob called it “vaccine apartheid.” His South African counterpart, Cyril Ramaphosa, noted that it is “a great concern that the global community has not sustained the principles of solidarity and cooperation in securing equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines.”

In December, the AU and Africa CDC are hosting the inaugural conference on Public Health for Africa, seeking a new health order for Africa. This follows the October COP26 gathering in Glasgow Scotland. In view of the response of wealthy countries to the pandemic, there is little reason to expect that the upcoming approach and negotiations to unfold in Glasgow during COP26, will be any different from hollowing out of genuine multilateralism and nationalistic inclination leading to empty promises.

What should happen at COP26

Going into a new round of climate-related conversations, it is crucial that African officials do not view nor address these in isolation.

For more than a year now, the EU, UK and Canada have blocked the so-called WTO waiver…

Rather, knowing and bearing in mind the most recent experience as alluded to by African presidents at UNGA, their approach must thus be informed by linking the climate positions with the Covid-19 experience.

African officials must insist that should African countries make concessions on climate-related matters, it should only be done in return of demonstrable action related to paltry Covid-19 response. Africa should not be expected to once again walk away from a global forum making promises that future efforts will support Africa and Africans when the continent’s population is at present suffering the effects of Covid-19 related inequity and false multilateralism.

Bottom line

For more than a year now, the EU, UK and Canada have blocked the so-called WTO waiver, initially proposed by South Africa and India and subsequently endorsed by the entire African continent. In principle, the waiver seeks to secure expanded manufacturing of scarce vaccines during a pandemic. The US has expressed its support, but again very little demonstrable action has indicated a change in practice.

The waiver is only one example of a clearly agreed and defined African issue that is being deliberately dragged along in multilateral forums, such as the WTO, while band-aided with another multilateral and counterintuitive mechanism, COVAX.

It is therefore imperative that African countries demonstrate unity, but more importantly take a more strategic position to the COP26, by demanding significant concessions and action from the wealthy nations on the matters of Covid-19 vaccines. The reality and recent experience, however, tell us that a fractured separate approach to different multilateral platforms and forums does little but a disservice to Africa. It is not about holding climate hostage on the issue of Covid-19, but to make the world understand that Africa sees the bluff.

Progressive linkage, therefore, by linking pro-Africa and progressive positions from one forum more strongly to another forum, will herald a new approach from an Africa that has to build increased unity during the Covid-19 pandemic. It as well serves to better otherwise fragmented progressive constituencies, both in Africa and elsewhere, that are otherwise focusing more singularly on the issues of climate change, public health, but failing to link them to force unity in forums where power dynamics are against Africa.

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