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Gordon Brown: finance ministers must add Covid burden-sharing to their G20 to do list

The writer is a former UK prime minister

It is often said that there are two kinds of finance ministers: those who fail and those who get out just in time. And, in my experience, what most often brings ministers down is the unexpected; those things you omit to plan for that leave you struggling to keep up with events.

Predictably, the crowded agenda of today’s first G20 finance ministers meeting under Indonesia’s presidency will cover most aspects of our unbalanced global recovery and our ever more fragile geopolitics: the fallout from Ukraine, not least on energy supplies, unexpectedly high inflation, rising protectionism and a downgrading on likely growth, as well as the future of sanctions, given the Afghan famine.

But the world will be a more dangerous place, and global recovery impeded, if an item that has been at the top of finance ministers’ agendas for the past two years – the pandemic and the financing of the global health response – is downgraded to “ any other competent business ”out of a misguided complacency that we are now in the Covid endgame.

The inescapable truth is that the very global health organizations that we will continue to rely on to contain the pandemic are running out of money. There is a gaping and immediate $ 16bn hole in their finances that, even after a record 120mn Covid cases since the start of the year, no one yet seems prepared to fill.

When asked how much cash Covax, the global body co-ordinating the supply of vaccines, has left, Seth Berkley, the head of GAVI, the global alliance for vaccines, replied, “None”. GAVI alone needs $ 4.4bn – including an emergency $ 545mn for syringes, transport and insurance to administer vaccines that would otherwise pass their use-by date. The Global Fund – which urgently needs $ 6.5bn – has used up its reserves to deliver $ 4.1bn of tests, therapeutics and PPE to over 100 low- and middle-income countries. And the WHO is $ 2.3bn short for in-country delivery of treatments and for its work co-ordinating research, advice and capacity building. These are just three of the nine agencies that form the ACT-Accelerator, the global body set up to co-ordinate the provision of therapeutics, diagnostics, vaccines and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Five months into its financial year, ACT-A has received only 5 per cent – $ 814mn – of the $ 16.8bn that the agencies it funds urgently need. As a result, as we enter the second year of the pandemic, low-income countries have received less than 1 per cent of vaccines and only 0.4 per cent of the 5bn tests administered worldwide.

Yet it is from these countries with the lowest rates of immunization and testing among the immunocompromised – Yemen (1.2 per cent fully-vaccinated), Burundi (0.07 per cent), Tanzania (2.8 per cent), DR Congo (0.27 per cent) – that the next unplanned for ‘surprise’, a new mutation, is most likely to emerge. It makes no sense to face the future unprepared. We should not be so relaxed as to assume the next variant will be less lethal than the last. A failure to vaccinate the unvaccinated and test the untested will put all of us, including those with boosters, at risk.

Passing the begging bowl around as if at a charity fundraiser is no way to fund this life-saving work now and into the future. In the last few days, Norway and South Africa have circulated a burden-sharing formula under which the United States and European countries would each pay around 25 per cent of the $ 16bn, with the rest of the G20 and the Gulf states paying most of what’s left.

This ‘fair shares’ approach is the basis of the ‘assessed contributions’ that finance UN peacekeeping. The quota system that capitalizes the IMF and World Bank is even more appropriate when funding the most obvious global public good of all – the control of infectious disease.

The finance ministers meeting at the G20 should model their Covid decisions on the burden-sharing agreement that paid for the 1960s campaign to eradicate smallpox. More than anyone, they should appreciate the economic logic, as outlined in an open letter today from 160 economists, public-health experts and former leaders. The $ 16.8bn request is a fraction – 0.3 per cent – of what the IMF now estimates will be $ 5.3 trillion in Covid-induced losses to the global economy by 2026.

By far the cheapest insurance policy against future mutations, it is also the most cost-effective investment these ministers can make in 2022. What will cost each citizen in the richer countries just 10 cents a week is a small price to pay to make 2022 the year we finally bring Covid fully under control.

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