Jeremic at the UN: The vaccine against COVID-19 must be equally accessible to everyone


Your Excellencies,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear friends,


I had a distinct privilege of serving my country as Foreign Minister, as well the world as the 67th President of UN General Assembly.

It is my pleasure to address you under these extraordinary circumstances, as we mark the 75th anniversary of the United Nations.

At the onset, I would like to join others in offering my congratulations to Ms. Sanda Ojiambo on her recent appointment as the Executive Director of the UN Global Compact. I would also like to thank Ms. Lise Kingo for her many years of dedicated service and vigorous leadership in the same post.

I very much look forward to working with Ms. Ojiambo, as she takes the Global Compact into its next stage: the mobilization of sustainable companies and stakeholders to bring the full weight of the private sector behind the Sustainable Development Goals.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Geopolitical circumstances have made it much more difficult for the world to reach the SDGs by the 2030 deadline. Since their adoption, achieving them has been predicated on the assumption of increasing international cooperation. It has also been predicated on enough resources put to that end.

Unfortunately, the reality for a number of years has been the opposite, as we witness less and less quality cooperation between UN member states.

When I was President of the General Assembly in 2012-2013, I was tasked with steering the UN towards the establishment of the 2030 Agenda. My job was to help member states launch their negotiations to agree on a list of SDGs, and to help develop financing, monitoring, and reporting mechanisms.

It took months of intensive work in New York just to agree on a format for the actual negotiations. Eventually, they got off the ground, and ultimately the 2030 Agenda was adopted on time, a few years later.

But, I can tell you from personal experience that even then the mood amongst the diplomats in New York was not exactly one of altruistic teamwork.

Ever since, diminishing multilateral cooperation has remained the prevailing trend, laudable exceptions notwithstanding. And unless these trends are reversed, it’s difficult to imagine that the world will achieve the SDGs by anywhere near the 2030 deadline.

Now, I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, because I still think there is a way forward—a way for the world to get back on track. And I think the Global Compact—the private sector—can help generate the momentum we need to catch up and build the “World We Want”.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The reactions of nation states to the COVID-19 pandemic has assiduously exposed numerous weaknesses of the current international system, which is already being tormented for years by a number of disconcerting trends, like:

·      dysfunctional multilateralism;

·      the absence of global leadership;

·      hastening rivalries;

·      downgraded diplomacy;

·      economic alarm;

·      social discontent; and

·      environmental degradation.

Instead of reforming our multilateral institutions, we’ve let them grow frail from neglect—to the point that some of them are perceived now to be simply unfit for purpose. Just as one example—which in our present context is more than just an ordinary example: even before the onset of the COVID19 pandemic, the World Health Organization was unable to meet its funding targets. Even at the height of the pandemic, it couldn’t. And it still can’t.

So just ask yourselves: if the WHO cannot fill its budget NOW, when the world is being ravaged by the pandemic, then will it ever? What worse calamity needs to befall the world for that to happen?

Of course, the WHO is far from perfect—nothing created by human beings is. But it’s the only such institution we currently have, and it could be far more effective if it were funded properly.

We’ve witnessed attempts to politicize its work, which wasn’t terribly helpful.
The effects of this, however, could have been mitigated by a number of states stepping up to lead the charge of humanity in responding to the coronavirus. Unfortunately, no one did—in sharp contrast to 2008, when the G20 was created to respond quickly and forcefully to the onset of the global economic crisis.

The events of the past few months tell us something we don’t like to hear, and that is: no state or a group of states has the will to effectively take up the mantle of global leadership.

And that’s why my friend Ian Bremmer is right: we live in a G-Zero world.

This is the first time in centuries that we have an evident vacuum of power in world politics and no one is trying to fill it. No one wants the job.

We unfortunately live in an increasingly leaderless era the world over. And the onset of COVID-19 did not reverse this trend. To the contrary, it hasn’t even entrenched it, but has actually quickened it.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s hard to believe that this reality will not shape the efforts to recuperate from the consequences of the pandemic, and in turn affect the commitments to fulfill the SDGs. Calls to mobilize concerted international action will continue to face populist resistance, as well as growing disinclination to marshal solidarity.

Moreover, the trend towards de-globalization looks likely to remain—triggered in part by the onset of high-tech bifurcation lead by the world’s two most powerful states. Many Global Compact participants have already felt the effects of this de-coupling.

And this brings me to the all-important question of SDG financing, that is money. Money that is needed to effectuate the transformation of our societies, our economies, and our relationship with nature.

The fact of the matter is that humongous resources are being channeled elsewhere.

Over the past few months, literally trillions of dollars have been borrowed and spent by governments all over the world in order to avoid immediate economic collapse.

Trillions more will be spent on the actual recovery. And two things seem likely, if current trends continue apace. 

First, most governments will allocate most of their resources to kickstarting their own economies. International solidarity will not be a strong factor and long-term, strategic thinking will take a backseat to the quick fix. 

Second, and relatedly, we can expect further relegation of the 2030 Agenda to the backburner of governments’ priorities across the globe.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which is headed by my former mentor and adviser Jeffrey Sachs, has been tracking SDG implementation since the 2030 Agenda was adopted.

Right before the onset of the pandemic, the SDSN confirmed what a number of other studies had been telling us: not a single country—anywhere in the world—was on track to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals by the target date of 2030.

In late June of this year, SDSN and the Bertelsmann Stiftung jointly released their flagship “Sustainable Development Report for 2020.”

One of the foci of this eye-opening report was how the coronavirus pandemic was affecting the implementation of SDG 3, entitled “Good Health and Well-Being.”

Its verdict was hardly surprising: the impact was deemed to be “highly negative.”

The report went on to draw attention to the fragile state of health and prevention programs across the world, and emphasized that the role of public health systems in disease prevention and surveillance will need to substantially increase to prevent further waves of Covid-19 and future health crises.

It also pointed to the negative impact on SDG 1, that is poverty; SDG 2, food security; SDG 8, the economy; and of course SDG 17, multilateralism.

This pandemic has had numerous other adverse effects on the SDGs. Vulnerable countries and population groups (including older people, people with pre-conditions, and refugees) are disproportionately affected by the short- and medium-term consequences of the crisis. This will surely result in growing inequalities, undermining progress towards the achievement of SDG 10.

It can also be expected to undermine progress on SDG 5, gender equality, because a growing body of evidence suggests that women are disproportionally hit — including through labor market disruptions and increase in domestic violence.

And of course SDG 4, education, which tends to affect populations that are poorly equipped with digital technologies.

So, we can say that the coronavirus pandemic has negatively influenced —in a comprehensive way—the entire 2030 Agenda.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

During my term as President of the UN General Assembly, as well as on many other subsequent occasions, I have strongly advocated for enhancing the role of Public Private Partnerships in achieving the SDGs. And I’m a strong believer in the role of PPPs to help develop and distribute COVID-19 treatments and vaccines at global scale.

This is becoming even more important given the onset of vaccine nationalism, with states engaging in fierce competition, accompanied by finger-pointing and scapegoating, as well as by political pressure on pharmaceutical companies to cut corners and deliver results at dangerously unrealistic speeds.

We know that vaccines developed in certain countries have already been questioned for not having followed the standard safety protocols.

But at the same time, we’ve seen that research labs and pharmaceutical companies in other parts of the world are pushed by their governments to edit the rulebook, in order to compress the time it takes to develop, test, and manufacture an effective product.

We’ve also seen how some R&D efforts have favored newer vaccine technologies or riskier processes that have never before been used in human beings. And we’ve seen that older but established methods are receiving less attention and funding.

Meanwhile, by the time these remarks are broadcast, more than 30 million people will have been infected and approximately 1 million will have died across the world. These are staggering numbers.

So it’s no wonder that we all hope for a vaccine to appear by the end of this year. But in the history of medicine, no pandemic-ending vaccine has ever been created in less than four years. And research on a COVID-19 one has been going on for merely months now. So even if we somehow halve the process to two years, we’re still looking at the middle of 2021. And this leaves aside the question of mass production and global dissemination—not to mention equitable pricing.

In this time of geopolitical locomotion, it seems like wishful thinking to expect nation states to put their differences aside and cooperate at maximum potential.

My hope, however, is that the Global Compact can become a world leader in getting the private sector to come together and establish a set of voluntary, industry-wide guidelines and procedures as we move closer to finding a vaccine. The Global Compact is uniquely placed to do this, since most of the world’s leading philanthropies and pharmaceutical companies are part of it.

So here’s what I propose.

Number one, Global Compact participants should work together to help ensure that manufacturing, packaging, delivery, and distribution all get up and running. This includes making sure that supply chains can flow unimpeded—especially “cold chain” and even so called “ultra cold chain” methods, if that’s what vaccine protocols end up requiring. That’s going to be a massive effort on a global scale—and right now, no one, with the exception of very few private endeavors and philanthropies, are doing much about it.

The Global Compact, however, can and should help, encouraging its big pharma participants to join with leaders in other industries and organizations like UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, and the ACT Accelerator, for instance, in planning for what is likely to make D-Day look like a walk in the park—in terms of the logistical complexities involved.

Number two, Global Compact participants should encourage the pharmaceutical industry to agree on a common vaccine pricing structure—whether at cost, indexed to per capita GDP, or some other way that ensures developing countries are not discriminated against.

This would build on the work of initiatives like the WHO’s COVAX scheme and CEPI to ensure equitable access.

Number three, to encourage Global Compact big pharma participants to agree on how to engage with governments to ensure that vaccine dissemination is public-health-driven—in other words, that they present a common front in terms of insisting that priority is given to at-risk groups across the world like health and social care workers. This would surely reduce the number of infections and deaths, and shorten the pandemic’s duration once a vaccine is found.

Without a doubt, the GAVI plan is both a good model and a good start, but one that the Global Compact can help make even better.

In short: by partnering with existing initiatives, the Global Compact can encourage, in the context of the pandemic, common standard-setting that’s ethical, equitable, and in line with the SDGs.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Doing just these three things would constitute a delivery of global public good of immeasurable value. So it’s definitely worth doing for its own sake.

But I say that it could also reinvigorate the entire 2030 Agenda: through its example, it could catalyze public opinion and governmental action to prioritize the fulfillment of the SDGs.

Now, I’m not saying Global Compact leadership on the pandemic vaccine issue could somehow magically overcome multilateral dysfunction or stem geopolitical rivalries. But I am saying that it could re-open the door to getting recalcitrant stakeholders to re-prioritize sustainable development. If the Global Compact can show that applying the SDGs helps the world overcome the COVID-19 virus, then maybe the set of these 17 holistic goals can help us alleviate other challenges that are inherently global.

Right now, I’m afraid the momentum has faltered and enthusiasm has waned. In just five years, we’ve gone from asking “how can we best get this done?”, to saying the 2030 Agenda is too hard, it’s too ambitious, or too expensive.

We hear sceptics reminding us that it’s not even legally binding—as we all know too well, no penalties or sanctions are mandated in case of abrogation.

But I say: precisely because it’s a voluntary endeavor, the promises that were made are more weighty and solemn. I still wholeheartedly believe the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a grand moral covenant for humanity, and that the private sector—in this case, big pharma—can and must act as a global alleviator of global suffering.

The 2030 Agenda still represents humanity’s best shot to provide for a more inclusive type of growth and more equitable societies for all the nations of the world, in full respect of the limits of nature.

And that’s why I still think that this is far more significant than just a simple agreement between states.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The SDGs are about our solidarity and responsibility to one another as individual, national, and corporate stakeholders—they’re about a historic decision to cease destroying the very basis for future generations to prosper, wherever they may live.

The deeper truth, therefore, is that the 2030 Agenda is, after all, binding upon us all—not only because our leaders gave their word, and because as citizens of our respective countries we must hold them to their promise.

It is binding because the alternative is no longer unimaginable: the spread of a mortal disease no one wants to lead in eradicating.

Right now, however, passing the buck; taking no responsibility; blaming others; acting selfishly. Sadly, that’s our reality today.

I’m sure we can do better, and the Global Compact can help us do so.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

In Macbeth, Shakespeare describes a world “Almost afraid to know itself”—a world in the downthrows of twofold pestilence: disease caused by nature, compounded with disease through misrule. In a time of plague, the king’s ineptitude grows alongside his insecurity, as he loses all facility to act with prudence of forethought: “The very firstlings of my heart shall be / The firstlings of my hand,” the king laments pathetically. His selfish, short-sighted effort at self-preservation is transformed by febrility into self-destruction. The king’s time ends in tragedy whilst the play ends with a hope for the renewal.

The world of today bears a disconcerting familiarity to the one staged by Shakespeare: this pandemic presents us with that sort of Shakespearian hope: an opportunity for a do-over; a second chance to seize again the opportunity of the 2030 Agenda—instead of squandering it yet again out of fear, reticence, distrust, incredulity, or whatever else may be holding back our governments.

This may be the moment for the private sector to stand at the vanguard of the SDGs, to show that it is possible to lead, and to show that leadership produces results that momentously advance the common good.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

At the end of Macbeth, “newer comfort” is announced by one of the characters: wanting to erase the pestilence from memory, he hopes the recovery can be swiftly achieved.

Certainly, we would be well advised to temper our expectations of what constitutes success. And I must caution: even if we do everything in our power and to the best of our ability, a panacea is by no means right around the corner.

But without some tangible success, our world is in danger of descending further into covetous rancor—having learned nothing, gained nothing, and forgotten everything.

And I for one think we must do better than that.

I thank you very much for your attention.

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