UK leading coronavirus response despite Brexit introspection

UK leading coronavirus response despite Brexit introspection

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson answers questions via videolink from a Parliamentary Liaison Committee on the government’s handling of the global COVID-19 pandemic in London on May 27, 2020. (10 Downing Street/AFP)
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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday hosts a major international vaccine conference. At a time when London has been widely seen to be withdrawing from the world as a result of Brexit, this is the latest example of how it is helping lead the global response to the coronavirus disease pandemic.

On May 3, for instance, Johnson co-hosted, along with other European countries, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Japan, a virtual global pandemic pledging conference that kick-started a month-long international investment drive ahead of this week’s vaccine event, which he has called the “most urgent shared endeavor of our lifetimes.” These last few weeks of activity have built on other recent actions, including by the G20, G7, International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

In April, for instance, this year’s Saudi Arabia-hosted G20 took a range of measures, including suspending debt payments by developing countries from May until the end of this year, so that those nations can prepare for the required increased spending on health care during the pandemic.

Despite these initial moves, more action is badly needed and Thursday’s conference comes in the light of the UN’s warning last week of “unimaginable devastation and suffering around the world” unless countries act together now. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres painted a picture of 60 million people pushed into extreme poverty, a famine of “historic proportions,” some 1.6 billion people left without livelihoods, and a loss of $8.5 trillion in global output — the sharpest contraction since the Great Depression of the 1930s. As he highlighted, there is now a danger of interconnected threats endangering decades of international development work in what is becoming not just a health crisis, but also a humanitarian and economic disaster.

These challenges are not just of grave import for the developing world, but also for the industrialized world too, given the warnings of Guterres that the pandemic will “circle back around the world” in a second wave if they do not help poorer nations with weak health care systems. This is especially true in the context of deep recessions across many emerging markets.

Part of the challenging picture comes from a separate potential crisis brewing among the leading development charities arising out of slowed disbursements from governments and other donors. Development charities are having problems implementing projects while their in-country teams are in lockdown.

These challenges are not just of grave import for the developing world, but also for the industrialized world

Andrew Hammond

This tragic picture is the framing for this week’s conference. At a time when UK foreign policy has become largely focused on Brexit, the pandemic has provided a way for London to renew its international leadership, even though the country has suffered some 40,000 deaths due to the pandemic.

Johnson said at last month’s conference, which raised about $8 billion in pledges, that the battle against coronavirus must see governments work more closely together to build a shield around international populations, and that can only be achieved by developing and mass producing a vaccine. He also asserted that, the more nations pull together and share expertise, the faster scientists will discover a vaccine to prevent future waves of infection and end this pandemic as quickly as possible. He argued that, by strengthening health systems in developing countries, London and its partners can play a part in stopping the global spread of coronavirus and save lives everywhere.

The UK has led the way on this agenda, pledging £388 million ($488 million) in aid funding for research into vaccines, tests and treatments, alongside £330 million a year over the next five years to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. This is part of a larger £744 million UK aid commitment to help end the pandemic and support the global economy, which includes £250 million for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to develop vaccines against coronavirus — the biggest such donation to the fund by any country.

While President Donald Trump last week ended the US’ membership of the World Health Organization (WHO), London has taken a very different path, pledging £200 million to help slow the spread of the virus in vulnerable countries. Of that funding, £130 million will go to UN agencies, including £75 million for the WHO, which is coordinating the global response to the pandemic.

The UK’s work on vaccine development is also progressing at pace. Last month, for instance, the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca announced a partnership to support the large-scale manufacture and potential distribution of a vaccine being trialed by the university.

Thursday’s conference will, therefore, significantly bolster the international response to the pandemic, which has been set back by Trump’s WHO decision. For the UK’s international partners, its leadership of this agenda is a hopeful signal that — post-Brexit — London will remain at the vanguard of global development policy.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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