How to respond to the COVID pandemic 

John WH Denton AO is ICC Secretary General In 2021 the G20 needs to move beyond non-binding pledges and start taking coordinated action in response to COVID-19. The world is entering a critical juncture in response to the COVID-19 crisis. With over 70 million cases and more than 1.5 million deaths recorded globally, the economic and human suffering from the pandemic is frustratingly far from over. As countries around the world battle second – and even third – waves of the virus, G20 leaders must embrace a responsibility to unite in the pursuit of policies that will speed up recovery efforts and set the foundations for a rapid and resilient global recovery. For starters, G20 leaders need to come to the (virtual) table with substantive commitments for addressing the pandemic’s lingering consequences, including the protectionist and reactionary measures adopted earlier this year. This wave of tit-for-tat export restrictions and policy flipflops created massive uncertainty in personal protective equipment (PPE) availability, leading to shortages in supply for health workers worldwide. Now that the initial shock of COVID-19 has passed, G20 countries must remove these temporary restrictions and ensure that they do not transition to longer term distortions. Better still, G20 leaders should devise trade policies that will ensure rational and equitable access to much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccines for all countries. Already, 156 economies have committed to the multilateral COVAX facility, a global risk-sharing mechanism for the equitable distribution of inoculations. Several key manufacturing countries are, however, showing worrying signs of vaccine nationalism. If decisive action is not taken, a scramble to secure early doses of proven vaccines may emerge. Indeed, some countries are already taking steps to hedge their bets with advance agreements. As the representatives of 80% of world trade, G20 leaders have an opportunity to motivate a more cooperative approach by sending a clear message, backed by action, that preserving the lives of millions and the livelihoods of billions through this pandemic will require open trade in essential medical supplies and equitable access to any effective vaccines that become available. The resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Europe and North America is evidence that no economy will recover fully from the crisis until the viral spread is effectively contained throughout the world. While many developed economies are able to grapple with infection peaks, there is an absolute imperative to ensure that developing economies are given adequate fiscal space and assistance to contain the pandemic and preserve local productive capacity. Most notably, G20 economies need to agree on a new package to provide immediate debt relief to any country struggling under the weight of debt to guarantee critical health services to its population. Developing economies should not have to face a choice between servicing sovereign debt obligations or paying to safeguard the lives and livelihoods of their citizens. If a debt crisis is allowed to take hold of emerging economies, the effects of the pandemic will only worsen. Rather than let the debt crisis escalate, G20 leaders must extend and broaden debt service relief to the world’s poorest countries. This is all the more urgent, as recent market turbulence highlights the looming risk that the supply of trade finance – supporting as much as 90% of world trade – will retrench significantly just as demand returns to the economy. Without access to cost-effective trade credit, businesses, particularly small ones, will find it difficult to ensure operations and a much-desired economic rebound will likely fall flat. To stave off business closures that risk preponderantly steamrolling small and medium-sized businesses, G20 leaders should work with the private sector to shore up the niche but essential market for trade finance. Doing so would complement the ‘significant progress’ G20 trade ministers have said they want to achieve in long-running discussions on WTO reform that have yielded little in the way of 21st century rules for pressing issues like digital trade and sustainability. Recent statements have struck encouraging tones, but modernising the global trading system to work for everyone will require more imagination and political will than has been shown to date. The G20 once proved itself capable of steering a coordinated response to what emerged as the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. But the playbook of yesteryear will not meet the exigencies of a health-driven crisis in 2020. The multiple challenges created by the spread of COVID-19 require an adapted approach. For G20 leaders, decisive actions remain within reach when it comes to setting the global economy on a more solid footing for an expedited recovery. But having impact in 2021 will require global leadership of the kind the G20 should aspire to 
… the playbook of yesteryear will not meet the exigencies of a health-driven crisis in 2020