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by Anuj CHOPRA

G20 leaders will pledge to “spare no effort” in ensuring fair distribution of coronavirus vaccines worldwide, and reaffirm support for debt-laden poor countries, according to a draft communique seen by AFP Sunday.

The group also struck a unified tone on supporting multilateral trade and the fight against climate change, but the closing document lacks details on many of the issues dominating the virtual summit.

In a high-stakes webinar, leaders of the Group of 20 major powers have held a weekend of “digital diplomacy” to coordinate a response to the rampant pandemic and the worst economic recession in decades.

The unusual format, in place of a real-life meeting that coronavirus restrictions made impossible, has produced some awkward interactions, and deprived the host nation Saudi Arabia of an opportunity to showcase itself on the international stage.

US President Donald Trump made a brief appearance at the opening session on Saturday before logging off and going golfing, while other leaders braved technical quirks and the lack of opportunity for spontaneous interactions.

The two-day online gathering comes as international efforts intensify for a large-scale rollout of coronavirus vaccines after a breakthrough in trials, and for G20 nations to plug a $4.5-billion funding shortfall.

“We have mobilised resources to address the immediate financing needs in global health to support the research, development, manufacturing and distribution of safe and effective Covid-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines,” the draft document said.

“We will spare no effort to ensure their affordable and equitable access for all people, consistent with members’ commitments to incentivise innovation.”

The communique offered no details however on how the effort will be funded. The final version will be released later Sunday.

In a comment echoed by other world leaders, French President Emmanuel Macron said Saturday that the coronavirus crisis was “a test for the G20”, stressing there “will be no effective response to the pandemic unless it is a global response”.

– Soaring debt –
G20 nations have contributed more than $21 billion to combat the pandemic, which has infected 56 million people globally and left 1.3 million dead, and injected $11 trillion to shore up the battered world economy, summit organisers said.

But the group faces mounting pressure to help stave off possible credit defaults among developing nations, as their debt soars in the economic catastrophe stoked by the virus.

It has extended a debt service suspension initiative (DSSI) for developing countries until June next year, but UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has pushed for a commitment to extend it until the end of 2021.

The draft communique did not offer a firm commitment.

G20 finance ministers will instead examine the recommendation when the IMF and World Bank meet next spring “if the economic and financial situation requires” an extension by another six months, it said.

On trade, the club of the world’s richest nations also emphasised that supporting a multilateral system “is now as important as ever”.

“We strive to realise the goal of a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open,” the communique said.

Ahead of the summit, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she hoped the US will adopt a more multilateralist stance under the incoming administration of Joe Biden.

US President Donald Trump’s robust “America first” trade policy has rankled world leaders.

Von der Leyen also added that she expected consensus and a “new momentum from the new US administration” on climate change, and a reversal of Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

Differences within the G20 group surfaced at last year’s summit in the Japanese city of Osaka as the United States demanded the insertion of a separate paragraph on issues such as environmental protection.

But under the Saudi chairmanship — in a first for the Arab world — the G20 leaders projected a unified stance, with the draft communique reiterating support for tackling “pressing” environmental challenges.

The kingdom’s human rights record has cast a shadow on the gathering, as campaigners and families of jailed activists launch vigorous drives to highlight the issue.

But some Western officials have indicated human rights will not be raised at the summit, saying they prefer to use bilateral forums to discuss the issue with Riyadh.

Agence France-Presse

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