By AYA BATRAWY and EDITH M. LEDERER
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The head of the United Nations told leaders of the world’s 20 major industrialized nations during an emergency virtual summit on Thursday that “we are at war with a virus – and not winning it” despite dramatic measures by countries to seal their borders, shutter businesses and enforce home isolation for well over a quarter of the world’s population.
The unusual video call in lieu of a physical gathering comes as governments around the world stress the importance of social distancing to curb the spread of the highly infectious virus, which has prompted closures, curfews and lockdowns globally.
The Group of 20 nations, which faces criticism for not taking cohesive action against the virus or its economic impact, vowed to work together. The group said they are collectively injecting more than $4.8 trillion into the global economy to counteract the social and financial impacts of the pandemic.
In a final statement after the meeting, the G20 said they were committed to strengthening the World Health Organization’s mandate. They said “global action, solidarity and international cooperation” were needed more than ever.
“The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder of our interconnectedness and vulnerabilities,” the group said. “The virus respects no borders.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres urged G20 leaders to adopt a war-time plan to tackle the pandemic. He warned “the challenges before us dwarf those of 2008,” in reference to that global financial crisis.
“It took the world three months to reach 100,000 confirmed cases of infection,” he said. “The next 100,000 happened in just 12 days. The third took four days. The fourth, just one and a half.”
“This is exponential growth and only the tip of the iceberg,” Guterres said, adding that countries must be able to combine systematic testing, tracing, quarantining and treatment, as well as coordinate an exit strategy to keep it suppressed until a vaccine becomes available.
Saudi Arabia, which is presiding over the G20 this year, opened the meeting with an urgent appeal by King Salman for the world’s most powerful nations to finance the research and development of a vaccine for the virus, which causes an illness known as COVID-19.
“This human crisis requires a global response. The world counts on us to come together and cooperate in order to face this challenge,” the Saudi monarch said during the virtual summit.
The meeting was not open to the media to observe. Governments and organizations distributed the comments of participants after the meeting concluded.
Images from the video conference were shared on social media by some of the participants. World leaders like India’s Narendra Modi, Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Canada’s Justin Trudeau, whose wife contracted the virus, could be seen in little boxes on a screen seated at desks in photos from European Council President Charles Michel. U.S. President Donald Trump was shown seated at the end of a long conference table in Washington with other American officials in photos shared by the Saudi Foreign Ministry.
The meeting also included Chinese President Xi Jinping and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was taking part in the summit from her apartment in Berlin where she is in quarantine after a doctor who gave her a pneumonia vaccine had tested positive for the virus. Two tests on Merkel have come back negative, but she’ll still need more tests.
Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested setting up a special fund under the IMF that would offer interest-free loans, and he emphasized the need to create “green corridors” for free movement of supplies and technologies intended to deal with the epidemic. He also proposed a moratorium on sanctions with regard to essential goods.
Putin noted “it’s a matter of life and death,” emphasizing the need to get rid of “political rubbish.”
He did not name any specific country but appeared to refer to U.S. sanctions on Iran, which has been badly hit by the outbreak. Russia has also faced waves of Western sanctions over its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea
The virtual summit also included leaders from the World Health Organization, the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, International Labor Organization and others.
IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva asked G20 leaders for their backing to double the fund’s $50 billion emergency financing capacity. She said vulnerable households and businesses need targeted financial support to stay afloat and get back to work quickly.
“Otherwise it will take years to overcome the effects of widespread bankruptcies and layoffs,” she warned. The IMF has said it stands “ready to deploy” all of its $1 trillion lending capacity, with nearly 80 countries currently requesting help.
The global death toll from the virus has climbed past 22,000 and the number of infections has surpassed 480,000, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Disagreement erupted this week among the Group of 7 leading industrialized democracies, which sparred over whether to call out China as the source of the coronavirus. The foreign ministers were unable to agree on a U.S. push to identify it as the “Wuhan virus,” in reference to the city in China where it first appeared. As a result, the group opted against releasing a statement after the call.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has been criticized for rocking oil markets by ramping up production next month and slashing prices to gain market share after Russia, another major oil producer, refused to extend production cuts. The U.S. has pressed Saudi Arabia to reconsider it’s current strategy.
The International Labor Organization says nearly 40% of the world’s population has no health insurance or access to national health services and that 55% — or 4 billion people — do not benefit from any form of social protection whatsoever. It said the current health crisis makes clear that not nearly enough progress has been made by governments in the years since the 2008 financial crisis to expand access to health services, sickness benefits, and unemployment protection.
Ethiopia’s government told G20 finance ministers and Central Bank chiefs in a call ahead of Thursday’s summit that Africa needs a $150 billion emergency financing package due to the impact of the virus.
Lederer reported from New York. Associated Press writers David Rising in Berlin, Kim Tong-hyung in Seoul, South Korea, and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.
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