UN chief says vaccination key to saving millions and driving global recovery

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has warned global recovery remains under threat from the impact of COVID pandemic and called for the equitable distribution of vaccines.

Speaking at a meeting in New York of Foreign Ministers of the Group of 77 developing nations (G77) and China, Guterres (above) said the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on developed and developing countries alike.

He added that his organisation stood behind the vaccination strategy set out by the World Health Organization (WHO), with the goal of getting vaccines into the arms of 40 per cent of people in all countries by the end of this year, and 70 per cent by the middle of 2022.

“Everyone, everywhere, must have access to COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatment”, he said, adding there needed to be greater support for the ACT-accelerator and the COVAX facility, which have been designed to provide vaccine doses to the world’s poorest nations.

Mr. Guterres also warned that the world economy is projected to grow by 5.9 per cent this year, but the pace of recovery is extremely uneven.

He explained personally he was not surprised given developed economies are investing 28 per cent of their GDP in recovery, middle income countries are investing 6.5 per cent, and the least developed nations are investing just 1.8 per cent.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that cumulative economic growth per capita over the next five years will be 75 per cent less than the rest of the world.

“This dangerous divergence threatens to widen as growth rates are expected to decrease in 2022. Rising inflation could also have a negative impact on the cost of borrowing and servicing debt”, he warned.

The UN chief also addressed the climate crisis, unsustainable levels of inequality, and the development of new technologies, asking for “a quantum leap in unity and solidarity to make collective decisions” on these global challenges.

On multilateralism and the importance of the United Nations, Guterres stressed the role of the Organisation during the pandemic.

UN Country Teams rolled out socio-economic response plans covering 139 countries and territories. More than $3 billion was repurposed, and an additional $2 billion was mobilized, to prioritize immediate support.

For Mr. Guterres, it was recent reforms that enabled the Organisation to adjust and respond quickly.

“As a result, more than 90 per cent of host governments have indicated that the United Nations today is more relevant to their country’s development needs when compared to three years ago”, he concluded.

His comments come as WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hit out at the “blunt” measurers many nations have imposed in response to the emergence of the omicron variant.

He said it was “deeply concerning” that Botswana and South Africa, where the new variant was first identified, were “being penalised by others for doing the right thing”.

Dozens of countries have imposed travel bans on the southern African nations since the mutation was discovered at the end of last week.

Ghebreyesus said that while it was understandable that all countries should want to protect their citizens, Omicron was still a largely unknown threat.

“Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we are done with COVID-19, it is not done with us,” he said.  “We are living through a cycle of panic and neglect.  Hard-won gains could vanish in an instant. Our most immediate task, therefore, is to end this pandemic.”

“As we don’t have any full picture of this variant, as long as we don’t know how well the existing vaccines are working…we need to use the measures that we know work,” added Christian Lindmeier, WHO spokesperson, during a scheduled briefing in Geneva.

These measures include “mask-wearing…ventilating a room, if possible, as often as possible, keeping the normal hand and body hygiene…We know these measures work”.

The WHO’s message comes as reports indicated potential concern voiced by the chief of vaccine manufacturer, Moderna, that existing shots may not be as effective against the new variant as previous ones, such as Delta.

Mr. Lindmeier said that more time was needed to reach a conclusion on the Omicron variant: “There might be higher transmissibility, according to initial reports,” he said, “hence we’re deeply looking. We still need a couple of weeks to get the details together and to know exactly what we’re dealing with.”

Reinforcing Ghebreyesus’ message, Mr Lindmeier pointed out that “Omicron is not the only variant out there, it’s now high on the agenda of interest. Let’s not forget there is Delta out there. There is a COVID-19 pandemic, even without the Omicron variant”.

Despite concerns that existing vaccines may not be as effective against Omicron, the WHO spokesman reiterated that a “high vaccination rate in the population works, we know that.

“The emergency rooms…are full of people with the most percentage unvaccinated. The most severe diseases and the most severe outcome until death is most often in those unvaccinated, and that’s of high importance.”

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