US President Biden called for a new era of international cooperation to fight the pandemic in his debut address to the United Nations General Assembly, but, one year after world leaders pledged to bring Covid-19 vaccines and treatments to “all people, everywhere,” the message of unity rang empty.
Speaking to a much smaller crowd than usual due to the ongoing coronavirus crisis, Biden on Tuesday urged heads of state to take swift action to rein in a pandemic that has killed millions and continues to resurge.
“We need a collective act of science and political will,” he said to a hybrid audience of virtual and in-person UN delegations. “We need to act now to get shots in arms as fast as possible, and expand access to oxygen, tests, treatments, to save lives around the world.”
On Wednesday, the White House said it was set to send an additional 500 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to foreign nations in 2022.
But the ongoing debate over how best to address the wide gap in vaccine access is boiling over at the UN, with national leaders condemning vaccine abundance in rich nations like the US and the drip-feed of shots afforded to the rest of the world.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines on Tuesday accused rich countries of hoarding Covid vaccines while the poor “wait for trickles” and developing countries consider half-doses to cover more of their populations. The Philippines has one of the lowest Covid vaccination rates in Asia, with just 17% fully vaccinated.
The divide, Duterte said in a prerecorded speech, “is shocking beyond belief – it must be condemned for what it is, a selfish act that can neither be justified rationally nor morally.”
Speaking to CNN on Sunday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres highlighted Biden’s Covid-19 summit on the UNGA sidelines and an International Monetary Fund proposal to create a $50 billion vaccine program for poor countries, saying these were “positive signs” that rich nations were starting to work together to tackle vaccine inequity.
“But let’s be clear: All this is too little, too late,” he added.
Out of six billion doses administered worldwide, only 2% have been in low-income countries. Discussions around how many traveling diplomats might still be unvaccinated illustrated just “how dramatic” the disparity in distribution remains, Guterres told Reuters. In a new take on vaccine diplomacy, a free Covid-19 testing and vaccination van welcomed world leaders and delegates at the UN, with the aim of avoiding a super-spreader event.
A so-called “honor system” calling for foreign delegations to be vaccinated before entering the assembly hall was broken on the very first day of the General Assembly.