Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic was THE talking point at the United Nations General Assembly this week — serving as projection, promotional tool and proxy for other pressing issues put forward by world leaders in their signature annual addresses.
Through the lenses of vaccine inequality, economic disaster, scientific misinformation and social isolation, just about every president, king, foreign minister and head of state talked about the pandemic as a sweeping global catastrophe. Yet each made it into a distinctive political message that said as much about a nation and its leader as it did about the virus itself.
As the world at large has done for many months now, leaders struggled to connect the pandemic with the ways they wish to govern — and with the threats that face their attempts to do so.
Palau President Surangel S. Whipps Jr. said his country was “COVID-safe” because Taiwan — and other allies, including the U.S., Japan, and Australia — delivered vaccines, PPE, testing capacity and training. Palau now has an 80% vaccination rate with zero deaths or hospitalizations.
Whipps praised Taiwan for its management of the pandemic within the territory's borders and also the development of a safe travel route to Palau that saved the remote island from total isolation.
“This sterile corridor has allowed Taiwan and Palau to resume medical and educational cooperation, and recoup economic engagement and other benefits of international travel,” Whipps said. “We encourage the U.N. system to accept Taiwan as a valuable contributor to our collective efforts and strongly advocate for Taiwan’s participation in the U.N. system.”
Joe Biden used his first speech as U.S. president to reassure the world that America was back to reclaim its elder statesman role in supporting world peace and prosperity, projecting itself as well-resourced and generous.
“Planes carrying vaccines from the United States have already landed in 100 countries, bringing people all over the world a little ‘dose of hope,’ as one American nurse termed it to me. A ‘dose of hope,’ direct from the American people — and, importantly, no strings attached,” Biden said before later announcing that the U.S. is doubling its global donation of COVID-19 vaccine shots.
Iran President Ebrahim Raisi slammed U.S. sanctions repeatedly in his address, declaring “sanctions on medicine at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic are crimes against humanity.”
“Despite the fact that the Islamic Republic of Iran was keen from the outset to purchase and import COVID-19 vaccines from reliable international sources, it faced inhumane medical sanctions. Therefore, from the very beginning, we started to sustainably produce vaccines domestically,” Raisi said.
Several countries denounced efforts to offer booster shots in wealthy nations while, as of mid-September, fewer than 4% of Africans have been fully immunized.
African nations like Namibia were not shy about drawing parallels between vaccine inequality and centuries of racism that had ravaged the continent.
“Vaccine apartheid has resulted in significant disparities in terms of vaccine rollout and availability, with many people in developing countries left out," said Namibian President Hage Geingob. “It is a pity that we have a situation where in some countries, citizens are at the stage of receiving booster shots while in other countries, many are still waiting to receive their first doses of vaccines.”
Namibia faced apartheid when neighboring South Africa’s white minority government controlled what they called South West Africa. Namibia gained official independence in 1990.
The apartheid reference was also especially poignant because the U.N. addressed racism and reparations for slavery and colonialism at a high-level meeting on Wednesday. There, member states recommitted to efforts to combat racism around the world and commemorated a landmark but contentious 2001 anti-racism conference.
Some world leaders talked about their own bouts of illness, making their infection personal to their agenda. Poland President Andrzej Duda said he was humbled by the virus and philosophized about global recovery.
“I am standing before you as one of more than 200 million people who have recovered from COVID-19. Like surely many of you present here, I went through the illness which befalls people irrespective of their function, status, religion, convictions, orientation and world views,” Duda said at the start of his speech.
He later asked: “In the last 20 months when the pandemic weighed so heavily on us, we have often asked ourselves: what will the post-pandemic world be like? Will it be the world of solidarity? Or shall we resume business as usual and consider that these months have been nothing more than an interruption in our routine, after which we can go on repeating our old mistakes?”
For vaccine skeptic Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, who was infected with COVID-19 last year, his showing at the U.N. was decidedly more defiant.
He flouted the requirement for all attendees to be vaccinated against COVID-19, declaring repeatedly that he remained unvaccinated because getting a shot is a personal, medical decision, and then circulated a photo of himself eating pizza on a New York street, an apparent jab at city’s restrictions on indoor dining.
In Bolsonaro’s U.N. speech, he also rebuffed criticism of his country’s handling of the pandemic, insisted vaccines would be available but not required, and chastised the overwhelming medical consensus that “early treatment” drugs like the one that he took are not effective.
“Since the start of the pandemic, we have supported doctor’s autonomy in search of an early treatment, as recommended by our Federal Council of Medicine. I was among those who tried the early treatment. We also respect the doctor-patient relationship with regard to the medication to be used and its off-label utilization,” Bolsonaro said. “We don’t understand why many countries, along with a large portion of the media, oppose early treatment. History and science will hold them accountable.”
Hours after his speech, it was announced that Brazil’s health minister, who had traveled with Bolsonaro, tested positive. Marcelo Quiroga got a shot of the vaccine in January; he now must stay behind in the United States for isolation.
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