DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — The Group of 20 summit began on Saturday with appeals by the world’s most powerful leaders to collectively chart a way forward as the coronavirus pandemic overshadows this year’s gathering, transforming it from in-person meetings to a virtual gathering of speeches and declarations.
The pandemic, which has claimed more than 1.37 million lives worldwide, has offered the G-20 an opportunity to prove how such bodies can facilitate international co-operation in crises — but has also underscored their shortcomings.
“We have a duty to rise to the challenge together during this summit and give a strong message of hope and reassurance,” King Salman said in his opening remarks. Saudi Arabia has presided over the G-20 this year and is host of the summit.
The pandemic has had far-reaching economic impact on developing countries, but has also plagued the world’s wealthiest nations, with nine G-20 countries ranking highest globally for the most cases of COVID-19 recorded. The United States tops the list, followed by India, Brazil, France, Russia, Spain, the U.K., Argentina and Italy, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University.
Three G-20 leaders participating in the summit have been infected by the coronavirus this year: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and U.S. President Donald Trump.
The virus shows no signs of abating as major cities in the U.S. and Europe bring back lockdowns and curfews. The World Health Organization says more cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the past four weeks than in the first six months of the pandemic.
The International Labor Organization says an equivalent of 225 million full-time jobs were lost in G-20 countries alone in the third quarter of 2020. The group’s member-countries represent around 85% of the world’s economic output and three-quarters of international trade.
In a video statement released ahead of the summit, Johnson appealed to global leaders to harness the resources of the world’s wealthiest nations to end the COVID-19 pandemic and tackle climate change.
“Our fates are in each other’s hands,” he said.
Johnson plans to attend two virtual events at the summit while self-isolating at home in London after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro, who spent months downplaying the severity of the virus while deaths mounted rapidly inside Brazil, said in a video message ahead of the summit that co-operation within the G-20 is key to overcoming the pandemic.
“From the very beginning, we have emphasized that we should take care of people’s health and of the economy at the same time. Time has proven us right,” he said.
President Trump, meanwhile, is among other G-20 leaders expected to participate in the closed-door virtual sessions that are taking place Saturday and Sunday.
G-20 heads of state last gathered virtually for an emergency meeting in March as the coronavirus was fast-spreading around the world.
At the time, G-20 leaders vowed to share information and the material needed for research, to exchange epidemiological and clinical data, and to strengthen health systems. They also promised to work together to increase funding for vaccine research.
While quick research and sharing of scientific information for the development of COVID-19 tests and vaccines has happened, individual G-20 countries have mostly focused on securing their own vaccine supplies.
With progress being made in developing a vaccine, King Salman said G-20 countries “must work to create the conditions for affordable and equitable access to these tools for all peoples.” He also urged G-20 leaders to provide support to developing countries.
“I am confident that the Riyadh summit will deliver significant and decisive results and will lead to adopting economic and social policies that will restore hope and reassurance to the people of the world, ” King Salman said.
A day before the summit, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that while $10 billion has been invested in efforts to develop vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, another $28 billion is needed for mass manufacturing, procurement and delivery of new COVID-19 vaccines around the world.
He called on more G-20 nations to join COVAX, an international initiative to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to countries worldwide. The United States has declined to join under Trump, saying COVAX was “influenced by the corrupt WHO and China.”
G-20 nations have agreed to suspend debt payments for the world’s poorest countries until mid-2021 to allow those nations to focus their spending on health care and stimulus programs. Guterres, however, called on the G-20 to extend debt repayments through the end of 2021 and expand the scope to middle-income countries in need.