Failure of political leadership – and imagination – is holding back the Covid-19 recovery

The G20 Global Health Summit in Rome this week could change the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, but only if political leaders decide to fully finance the ACT-Accelerator.

Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, speaks at the G20 summit, surrounded by world leaders.

Pool / Getty Images

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Alex Harris

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Failure of political leadership – and imagination – is holding back the Covid-19 recovery
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Crises can tell us a lot about ourselves. The human instinct is to fight or flight. But when societies, countries, whole regions of the world are in crisis, what then? Do we look inwards or outwards for solutions?

We’re in the middle of the biggest global crisis of the 21st century 

Science, economics and public opinion are telling us that we can’t solve this problem on our own: our only sustainable way out of the pandemic is through collective action.

We know how to defeat this virus and have tools to do it: vaccines, tests and treatments. We also have initiatives like the ACT-Accelerator to make these tools available more equitably around the world. But we are missing the courageous political leadership needed to tackle the virus everywhere. 

Our leaders have been under incredible pressure over the last year. Dealing with an unprecedented pandemic has forced them to grapple with domestic and international challenges with no easy solutions. Understandably, they have prioritised their domestic response and recovery. But it has become increasingly apparent – with the spread of new variants – that no country can afford to look inwards only.

Leaders of G7 and G20 countries have a chance to make history by agreeing to fully finance the ACT-Accelerator, sharing excess doses and ensuring science can keep pace with the pandemic.

We need urgent, collective action 

Countries like Canada, Germany and Norway have shown that it is possible to respond nationally and contribute generously to the global response by financing the ACT-Accelerator. We urgently need more G7 and G20 leaders to follow their lead. Without concerted collective action, where each country contributes their fair share, this pandemic will rage for much longer than it should. That will translate into many more lives and livelihoods lost.

The G20 Global Health Summit in Rome this week offers an important opportunity for political leaders to change the course of this pandemic by choosing to fully and fairly finance the ACT-Accelerator. History will judge them poorly if they allow Covid-19 to continue to entrench deep inequalities globally. 

The ACT-Accelerator has already expanded access to scientific advances in the last year. It has delivered the first vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, significantly reduced the costs of tests, procured personal protective equipment and secured access to the first proven Covid-19 treatments. However, this hard-won progress is at grave risk due to significant underfunding. An $18.5 billion funding gap for the ACT-Accelerator is hindering the rollout of Covid-19 tools in many low- and middle-income countries.

The longer some countries go without Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments, the more the virus will continue to spread, mutate and threaten all of us. Failure to ensure access to Covid-19 tools through the ACT-Accelerator is already costing us millions of lives, and could cause the global economy to lose $9.2 trillion in 2021. As much as half of this economic loss would fall on advanced economies like the G20 member states.  

In 2020 global GDP fell by $2.8 trillion. If countries continue to take a nationalistic approach it will cost $9.2 trillion. Funding Act-A costs just $18.1 billion.

Progress is possible when we work together 

The G20 countries could easily prevent this scenario by agreeing to fully finance the ACT-Accelerator this week. By sharing the financial costs fairly across the group, they could cover almost 90 per cent of what is currently needed to make sure Covid-19 tools are equitably distributed around the world. 

This is not unprecedented. Smallpox was eradicated because the world’s richest countries agreed, at the World Health Assembly in 1967, to share the financial costs to make it happen. Twelve years later, smallpox was eradicated worldwide. This is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It showed us what was possible when we worked together, and set us on a path of rapid progress on global health over the last five decades – progress that is under threat from the prolonged pandemic

The G20 Global Health Summit in Rome could be this pivotal moment for Covid-19, one that we would remember for centuries to come. The moment has passed for piecemeal contributions to the ACT-Accelerator that secure headlines but prolong the pandemic. 

It is now time for political leaders across the G20 to look outwards and contribute their fair share to making tests, treatments and vaccines available to all.

It is time to act collectively and courageously.