It is fall season and at 20 degrees, Rome can be glorious. Over the weekend, leaders of the world’s 20 richest countries are meeting at the ginormous La Nuvola Convention Centre — 26,000 square metres, 8,000 seats, distributed over three floors — to wax eloquent on what can be done to make the world a better place.
On the G20 agenda is ‘Sustainable Development’ and ‘Climate Change and the Environment’. US President Joe Biden will probably repurpose the green chapters of Build Back Better as a template to protect the world from climate change. Xi Jinping will reassert emission targets, promise that China will stop using coal at home but will be mum about funding coal projects abroad. Expect some more of the same.
What will come of the G20 summit (and indeed the #COP26 summit in Glasgow) is an open question — expect a lot of verbiage, promises and pronouncements. It may be instructive to seek answers on outcomes post the Riyadh 2020 and Osaka 2019 summits. As for #COP26, the history of COP summits at Berlin, Kyoto, Bali, Durban, Copenhagen and Paris provides valuable clues.
The past is frequently the prologue in geopolitics. What is shocking but not surprising — given the state of pusillanimous global leadership — is that the G20 Summit has not found reason to find space to discuss and define accountability for the Wuhan virus leak. The world deserves answers on how it happened and who is responsible for the leak. Beyond one motherhood session on public health, tagged to one on the global economy, there is no time devoted to the question.
This November makes it two years since three scientists in a lab in Hubei sought specialised medical treatment for their infections. Effectively, it’s two years since the COVID19 virus wrecked the definition of the phrase normal as it ravaged lives and livelihoods. In these two years, over 245 million found themselves breathless and nearly 5 million have lost their lives. Millions of others have lost their livelihood and as the World Bank estimates between 119 and 124 million people have been pushed into extreme poverty and millions of others are hanging between gloom and doom.
What’s worse is China continues to be opaque — almost in serial major ports have been shut down following outbreaks. This week, the Hubei and Beijing marathons were cancelled following a surge of Delta outbreaks in 11 provinces. Does the world know the extent of the surge and how it could impact trade and travel. The history of G20 since it was founded in 1999 is chequered — often the silence on issues, from human rights to sponsorship of terrorism, is louder than the words spoken from the podium. It is perhaps its track record which triggers mocking — as the ratification club and even as G-Zero.
Data from the IMF and World Bank reveal every member of the G20 took a hit except, yes, China. Even as every other country reported contraction, China turned in positive growth and added over $400 billion to its GDP in 2020. Data shows all the other 19 countries — including the richest and the most powerful — took a hit of over $ 2.5 trillion in just one year. The devastation continues and the spiralling cost of addressing the issues has upended the definitions of debt and deficit.
The question that must haunt the G20 forum and the leaders is how credible will their words about the future be if they do not make the effort to interrogate the cause of the biggest pandemic of the past 100 years. By its own estimation, the G20 is not a small fly on the geopolitical landscape. “Its members account for more than 80% of world GDP, 75% of global trade and 60% of the population of the planet.”
Yet, the ‘Troika’ (Saudi Arabia, Italy and Indonesia) shepherding the G20 Summit of 2021 at Rome, which is the first in-person meet in the post-vaccine world, has chosen not to bring on board even the question! And imagine, this is under the presidency of Italy, one of the worst-hit nations. It would seem human suffering and economic hardship is not on the radar of the 20 most powerful nations.
The G20 leaders may try to weave a fig leaf out of the setting up of a new panel to trace the origins of COVID19 virus. But the panel faces a trust deficit as questions are being raised about members who were part of the much criticised previous panel. The earlier panel is infamous for producing just four pages on the possibility of a lab accident causing the leak in a 300-plus page report. What’s worse is the politics. The ‘system’ now seeks to ‘re-elect’ the current WHO director general Tedros A Ghebreyesus unopposed despite a series of blunders — for instance, the WHO claiming in January 2020 that there was no ‘clear evidence of human transmission’.
It is not just the integrity of WHO which is at stake here. The G20 comprises large functioning democracies — barring the known and notable exceptions. Across these democracies, there is a silent majority which wants to know the truth and believes the world was deceived. The leaders of G20 cannot and must not dodge the obligation to fix the onus of how the virus leaked out.
The leaders of G20 must be mindful that the evil from the past lives on and will haunt public faith in elected governments. The legitimacy of those who loudly propound the virtues of free will and rule of law is on trial.
Author of The Gated Republic, Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution, and Accidental India firstname.lastname@example.org