Covid crisis clouds United Nations Assembly

Special to

By John J. Metzler

Since March the world has been battered by the Covid-19 virus. Over a million people have died and many more have been sickened by this “invisible enemy.”

From its origins in China, through its spread into Europe, the United States and Latin America, the virus has ravished societies and rocked the social bedrock of countries round the world.

The annual UN General Assembly, celebrating its 75th anniversary, has been forced to meet virtually, with online video sessions replacing the diplomatic pomp and pageantry of years past.

“In a world turned upside down, this General Assembly Hall is among the strangest sights of all,” lamented UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

The UN is holding a virtual General Assembly in 2020.

Here are a few of the more interesting speeches.

Leave it to Britain’s bombastic Prime Minister Boris Johnson to liven up what’s largely been a droning video debate;  “Never in the history of our species, not since the almighty felled the tower of babel,  has the human race been so obsessed with one single topic of conversation…  COVID-19, coronavirus, has united humanity as never before.”

Boris Johnson then warned, “the crisis has also been an extraordinary force for division. We have all been up against the same enemy. The same tiny opponent threatening everyone in much the same way, but members of the UN have still waged 193 separate campaigns, as if every country somehow contains a different species of human being.”

He counseled, “After nine months of fighting COVID-19, the very notion of the international community looks, frankly, pretty tattered. And we know that we simply can’t continue in this way. That is Unless we get our act together. Unless we unite and turn our fire against our   common foe, we know that everyone will lose.”

Boris Johnson pledged the United Kingdom’s massive additional funding for the controversial World Health Organization as well as to global vaccine research and distribution efforts.

Interestingly earlier in the year Prime Minister Johnson was himself hospitalized for having   contracted the Corona virus.  Moreover, even today the UK has a proportionally higher Corona virus fatality rate than the United States.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered some controversy; “Over the last 8 to 9 months, the whole world has been battling the pandemic of the Coronavirus. Where is the United Nations in this joint fight against the pandemic? Where is its effective response?”

He added “Reform in the responses, in the processes, and in the very character of the United Nations is the need of the hour.”

Prime Minister Modi then recited a long litany of India’s historic contributions to the UN, but then asked rhetorically why India has not been awarded a permanent seat on the powerful fifteen-member Security Council?

He said, “the international community today is faced with a very important question: Whether the character of the institution, constituted in the prevailing circumstances of 1945, is relevant even today?”

India has been devastated by the virus; with almost six million cases, nearly 100,000 people have died.

Charles Michel of the European Union (EU) made an interesting observation “I have often been asked a question that is both simple and brutal: In the new rivalry between the United States and China, which side is the European Union on?”

He stated, “My answer is the following…We are deeply connected with the United States. We share ideals, values and a mutual affection that have been strengthened through the trials of history. They remain embodied today in a vital transatlantic alliance.”

Michel added, “We do not share the values on which the political and economic system in China is based. And we will not stop promoting respect for universal human rights. Including those of minorities such as the Uighurs or in Hong Kong.”

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis was one of the few leaders to courageously criticize the WHO; “Unfortunately, and I say it with regret, the response we have seen by the World Health Organization has failed to exercise global health leadership. It did not act resolutely after the pandemic outbreak in Wuhan, China, and had a very limited success – to put it softly – in helping countries prevent, protect against, and respond to disease events.”

Contrary to past Assembly sessions, speakers did not cite the political laundry list of world crises; Korea was barely mentioned,  there were ritualistic mentions of  the Two State solution for Israel and Palestine, and few countries such as the USA, cited human rights in Cuba and Venezuela.

The Covid crisis has clouded the enthusiasm from this year’s anniversary General Assembly.

But it’s oft darkest before the dawn.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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