On Monday (May 4, 2020), in scenes reminiscent of the Eurovision Song Contest’s results segment, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hosted the snappily titled “Coronavirus Global Response International Pledging Event #UnitedAgainstCoronavirus #StrongerTogether #GlobalResponse.”
From the Commission headquarters in Brussels, von der Leyen threw to a virtual parade of poorly lit world leaders and international partners in empty offices, living, bed and spare rooms. Awkwardly looking slightly off camera, they read pre-prepared pablum statements emphasising the importance of the international community’s response to Covid-19 and collectively “pledging” 7.4 billion euros.
Earmarked for vaccines, medicines and diagnostics, it is unclear how much of the money is actually ‘new’. In fact, totals include money spent since the end of January as well as money already in international development and aid budgets. Politico have a run through of some of the issues here and here.
Spearheaded by the EU Commission, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, the UK, Norway, Canada, Japan and Saudi Arabia (as current president of the G20), the show of confidence in WHO, as well as multilateralism and international cooperation generally, stood in stark—and no doubt intentional—contrast to the weeks of criticism of WHO from the US. On top of this, the European Investment Bank signed a memorandum of understanding with WHO last week in order to enhance investment in health infrastructure and health workers in developing countries. As Geneva increasingly becomes a battleground between China and the US (Foreign Policy have a piece on this here), the EU seems keen to position itself publicly as the UN’s key ally.
While leaders line up to talk a good game on inclusivity and solidarity, WHO’s toughest test may still lie in countering nationalistic tendencies once a vaccine and/or cure are found. Dr Tedros has repeatedly stated at his regular press conferences that:
“the ultimate measure of success will not be how fast we can develop tools, it will be how equally we can distribute them. None of us can accept a world in which some people are protected while others remain exposed.”
As was seen with the debacles over country procurement of PPE and ventilators, it may be, sadly, that such a world is acceptable to many for quite some time.
Although hosted in Brussels, Geneva was front and center
Although the pledging event was convened from Brussels, Geneva-based organizations were front and center. As well as WHO, almost all non-state partners involved are headquartered here: WEF, GAVI, Unitaid, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, Global Fund, and the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics.
This underscores how crucial the Geneva ecosystem is to solving the crisis and also poses the question: Why was this happening in Brussels and not during WHO’s annual World Health Assembly in two weeks? Geneva-based journalist Priti Patnaik has two interesting pieces on these issues: one on the way WHO has potentially been side-lined in the context of the EU's pledging event for fighting the pandemic - how resources will be spent and overseen (here). And another on the ongoing negotiations around the EU’s proposed resolution on Coronavirus response that will be taken up at the upcoming World Health Assembly (here).