The G7 and COVID-19: What to expect

Isabel Muttreja

Two people in orange jumpsuits, fake shackles and masks of Boris Johnson and Bill Gates protest against COVID-19 restrictions.
Stand Up X protestors in Trafalgar Square, London wearing Boris Johnson and Bill Gates masks, October 12, 2020. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash.

This year’s G7 summit — the annual meeting of heads of state from seven global powers and European Union officials — takes place in the UK in June 2021. As the world struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic and starts to understand its long-term impact, all eyes will be on the summit for concrete answers on vaccine access, economic recovery and other elements of the mess we are in.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to use the UK’s G7 Presidency to focus on trade, the climate, championing shared values and ‘leading the global recovery from coronavirus while strengthening our resilience against future pandemics.’ A tall order. With big issues to tackle and often conflicting voices at the table, we’ve asked five experts to give their views on what we can expect the summit to deliver on the COVID-19 recovery. Each response draws on a recent article in International Affairs, all free to access and linked below.

In a recent article, you argue that COVID-19 is fundamentally a political challenge. What opportunities are presented by the G7 Summit for coordinating a global recovery from the pandemic?

Sara E. Davies: This is the first G7 to be held since the beginning of the pandemic and the primary focus is COVID-19 recovery and preparedness against future crises. Given that 75% of the world’s COVID-19 vaccines have been distributed in only 10 countries, the vast majority are far away from the recovery phase.

This year’s G7 has invited representatives from Australia, India, South Korea, and European Union. To some, it may seem problematic that this small group of states have so much power to coordinate the global recovery. To others, small international groupings like the G7 may feel like the way forward in the face of an increasingly fragmented international order. Yet consider the effect if the entire G7 supported India and South Africa’s call for a vaccine patent waiver. The biggest opportunities for this G7 are twofold: use its coordinating powers to deliver a fair solution for immediate global vaccine distribution and secure a long-term solution for equitable research and development, including vaccine production, in low- and middle-income countries.

Sara E. Davies is a Professor of International Relations at the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University. Her open access article, Why the COVID-19 response needs International Relations’, co-authored with Clare Wenham, was published in September 2020.

In the past, you’ve argued that global health is too often understood as a security issue. Have we seen this in the responses of G7 countries during COVID-19? What impact will this have on the negotiations at the 2021 summit?

Clare Wenham: The COVID-19 outbreak has demonstrated the reality of securitised responses to outbreaks. G7 governments have undertaken classic securitised interventions, such as closing borders, screening and blunt policy tools such as lockdown to ‘protect’ the population (and more likely the economy) from the virus. We can see this as a national conceptualisation of health security, where the aim has been to protect the state from the external threat of disease while ignoring the narrative of global solidarity which multilateral bodies like the WHO put forward.

As G7 nations meet to discuss the future of global health security, the discussion will revolve around ‘preventing the next pandemic’ such as through early detection mechanisms. This will be followed up with the UK’s Global Vaccine summit. However, whilst the G7 may talk a good game about global health security, it remains to be seen whether the rest of the world will listen to them, or whether the vaccine nationalism demonstrated by these countries, and their failure to support populations elsewhere, will be considered a barrier to future collaboration in this space.

Clare Wenham is an Assistant Professor in Global Health Policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her open access article The oversecuritization of global health: changing the terms of debate’ was published in September 2019.

The Gender Equality Advisory Council (GEAC) will make recommendations at the G7 summit on how to ‘ensure that women across the globe are at the forefront of the pandemic recovery’. How confident are you that this will happen?

Woman with pram walks on pavement next to a COVID-19 mobile testing centre.
A woman walks by a mobile COVID-19 testing lab in Brooklyn as the city begins to run low on vaccine doses on January 22, 2021, in New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt, Getty Images.

Sophie Harman: We need a subtle shift in terminology: women’s needs — not women — must be at the forefront of pandemic response. Women have done enough already in dealing with the fallout from COVID-19, being treated as pandemic shock absorbers while their needs were completely neglected. The G7 leaders must develop a global plan that prioritises women’s concerns including: their health, their employment and livelihood, their safety, and recognition of their work in the health and care sector through decent pay.

The stated priorities of the Gender Equality Advisory Council to the G7 — education and violence against women — stand in stark tension with the funding priorities of G7 states such as the UK, which has cut aid to these very issues. Cuts to aid will have a devastating impact on women’s education, safety, and reproductive health.

What we know from COVID-19 and previous health emergencies is that gender is always last on the list of post-pandemic recovery and planning. I wish I had confidence that this could change, but all the signs are clear on this happening again.

Sophie Harman is a Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Her open access article ‘Threat not solution: gender, global health security and COVID-19’ was published in May 2021.

The United States, India and South Africa are all in favour of lifting the WTO’s patent protections for COVID-19 vaccines. As all of these countries will have a seat at this year’s G7 summit, what are the prospects for a global agreement on patent waivers?

Thana C. De Campos-Rudinsky: More needs to happen at the G7 than simply licensing vaccines’ intellectual property. While licensing is necessary, it is not sufficient to guarantee the adequate production, distribution, and administration of the vaccine to those in countries where the vaccine is still scarce.

A truly universal pandemic suppression strategy requires reciprocally coordinating the global pharmaceutical supply chains. This would involve products being complementarily produced and globally shared. Some countries would produce generic active pharmaceutical ingredients, drugs, and vaccines to address COVID-19, and other countries would produce different generic pharmaceuticals and vaccines. Then, countries would import and export them among all WTO member states.

This is how solidarity among nations should look during pandemics. Such division of labour would be morally justified, strategically helpful for the international community, and legally consistent with the existing intellectual property rights regime. I hope to see a discussion about this at the G7, but it seems unlikely.

Thana C. De Campos-Rudinsky’s free access article Intellectual property and essential medicines in the COVID-19 pandemic’ was published in March 2021.

Over a year on from the start of the pandemic, what has it revealed about US global leadership? Could President Biden’s more active COVID-19 response result in more tangible outcomes at the G7?

Carla Norrlof: The pandemic demonstrated the unevenness in US global leadership as well as the world’s dependence on it. Former President Trump’s COVID-19 response was marked by science denialism and politicization, preventing the US from implementing swift, effective public health initiatives. On the other hand, Operation Warp Speed, a massive partnership between government and companies, facilitated the record delivery of American and European vaccines.

The US also exercised decisive economic and monetary leadership. The Federal Reserve, and Treasury, cut borrowing rates while providing extraordinary rescue packages, stimulating demand by injecting trillions of dollars into the economy. As a global lender of last resort, the Fed averted a global financial meltdown by meeting foreign dollar shortages through central bank swaps.

President Biden’s response to COVID-19 has sustained the Trump administration’s economic leadership by expanding financial relief. However, a stark contrast with the previous administration was in the health arena. Here, Biden’s approach was immediate and science-led, reversing US withdrawal from the WHO, enlisting the US in the COVAX program for globally equitable vaccine distribution and waiving vaccine patent protection. These measures pave the way for a proactive G7 agreement to increase global vaccine supply and distribution. Perhaps by overcoming resistance to a waiver from the likes of Germany. Alternatively by agreeing on compulsory licensing. In either case, technology transfers will be needed to expand the global vaccine supply.

Carla Norrlof’s open access article ‘Is COVID-19 the end of US hegemony? Public bads, leadership failures and monetary hegemony’ was published in September 2020.

Isabel Muttreja is the Marketing Assistant at International Affairs.

Read our ‘COVID-19 and global health security’ reading list for more research on this topic.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.

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