Letters & Opinion

Shopping for COVID at the Superbowl of Diplomacy

By Earl Bousquet

As I sat watching and taking-in the formal opening of the 76th United Nations General Assembly Debate – the second under COVID and the first for many new world leaders – I couldn’t but note that not only had most leaders decided to virtually address the world’s biggest platform, many among them opting to err on the side of caution and not risk attending a meeting in the USA, where at least 650,000 people have died from COVID, with between 100,000 and 150,000 new positive cases daily — and now, for the first time 2,000 dying daily.

The UN’s General Assembly has been described as everything from ‘The Superbowl of Diplomacy’ to ‘The world’s biggest talk-shop’, but it’s importance to Humankind needs not be explained to those who still haven’t appreciated its value.

Indeed, the very fact that almost every world leader attends the General Assembly every September is an indication that it commands the necessary respect of all world leaders, including Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, who broke with global protocols and turned-up in New York yesterday unvaccinated.

The UN Secretariat had invited leaders to choose between coming and addressing virtually and advised those coming to be vaccinated, but the brazen Bolsonaro, a COVID denier who simply refuses to vaccinate, said on arrival there were mobile vaccination units outside the UN headquarters he could use, if necessary.

Speaking first in alphabetical order after the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and host US President Joe Biden opened the debate, Bolsonaro justified those leaders who’ve decided to speak from home, lest they ended-up in the same room as him.

Notwithstanding that the microphone he spoke through would have been thoroughly cleansed and the podium disinfected after every speaker, no leader – including Saint Lucia’s new Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre – should or would be advised to take that chance with their lives: possibly returning home from a UN Summit with COVID.

I mean, that could be worse ‘bad news’ than the hundreds of German, Scottish and other Europeans who returned home testing positive for COVID on entry after attending international sporting (tennis and football) events at Wimbledon and Wembley earlier this year.

Just imagine the headline: ‘PM Pierre caught COVID at UN General Assembly!’

It would have absolutely pleased those at home who cannot wait to blow his Last Post, but as they’ve found out in his just six weeks as PM, the trumping trumpeters look like they have a long wait to blow their wind instruments.

Much was happening elsewhere in the world that occupied the minds of world leaders at home and abroad: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has just won his second elections in two years, President Vladimir Putin’s party had just won Russia’s parliamentary elections, France was all-but-at-war with the US and UK over a sunken submarine agreement with Australia, the Spanish island of La Palma was under a volcano eruption, the US was deporting Haitians who’d arrived in Texas from Mexico, there’d been an attempted coup in Sudan, ex-President Jacob Zuma didn’t turn-up at the continuation of his trial, Egypt’s Marshall Tantawi died at 85, the man whose story inspired the ‘Hotel Rwanda movie was jailed for 25 years and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan called on the world to govern the Taliban time to settle in Afghanistan.

But closer to home, the leaders of 31 Latin American and Caribbean states gathered in Mexico last Saturday (September 18) to discuss common issues, especially the effects of the COVID pandemic on the region and were assured by Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel that Havana will make its five vaccines available to its neighbours, once trials were complete.

But apart from agreeing to work together to fight COVID‘s common effects, the leaders attending 6th Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) also reiterated their mutual support for the causes of Cuba and Venezuela against external interference and aggression, as well as long-standing issues such as Independence for Puerto Rico and returning the Malvinas islands to Argentinian sovereignty.

Following on a special Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Summit on the COVID issue a week earlier (September 13), the CELAC meeting also followed the September 7 African Union-CARICOM virtual summit, where African and Caribbean governments also undertook to work together to fight COVID on the continent and in the region and to continue to combat global vaccine inequality.

The Cuban reassurance will boost or ease the anxiety of the tens of thousands across the wider community who’ve opted to await the Cuban vaccines instead of accessing available ones.

But with no time frame given and the Delta variant continuing to wreak havoc in Saint Lucia and other CARICOM, CELAC and AU member-nations, it’s only imperative that Saint Lucia had both a shopping list and a cart at the UN in New York.

Indeed, Caribbean and Latin American nations belonging to all the regional groupings – Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), Organization of American States (OAS) and The Americas – all also have a stake in the one-day virtual COVID Summit being hosted by President Biden today, alongside the UN General Assembly.

President Biden disclosed yesterday he’s allocated US $15 billion to assist the world to fight COVID and that over 160 million vaccines had been shared with over 100 countries, while another half-a-billion doses have started rolling-out in 25 Caribbean nations in The Americas.

Here too, it’s to be hoped that Saint Lucia also has a shopping list and a cart, if necessary, just in case delivery dates get tied-up like with the billion promised by G7 nations to give free to COVAX for about 100 nations identified as most in need, but of which lonely 5% has been delivered while the USA and UK have decided to give third vaccine doses to persons already twice-jabbed.

And while children in developing countries are simply ruled out of the vaccination equation, the UK will give free vaccines to children between 12 and 15 without consulting parents; and free third doses too, to everyone over 50 in Britain.

Secretary General Guterres said while extra doses were being given to persons already twice vaccinated, the rich nations should work together with all others to  ensure 70% of the world’s population is vaccinated by the end of the first half of 2022.

Watching and listening and letting it all sink-in, my mind never came off the fact that a pregnant Immigration Officer has become the first police officer to die, with 150 in quarantine and – according to Commissioner Milton Desir – more than half the police force unvaccinated.

With the unvaccinated levels so high while new cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase, CARICOM nations have decided to take a common approach to COVID messaging for the public, to fight the common negative effects of false and negative COVID news, especially conspiracy theories.

It is therefore to be hoped that when the Saint Lucia Prime Minister addresses the UN General Assembly later this week, he’ll not only take the line with Saint Lucia’s list and cart, but also ensure the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Saint Lucia’s UN Missions in New York and Washington, including the Ambassadors to the USA and OAS, also take their turns to keep checking-off the list — and keeping our COVID cart filled.

It’s the least we can expect, which will also demand the most of our ability to execute COVID Diplomacy in a way that will always put the health of all the people first.

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