Health and finance ministers from the G20 group of countries on Friday proposed the creation of a new international task force to coordinate action against health emergencies after a joint meeting.
The G20 Joint Finance-Health Task Force, announced in a communiqué, is charged with enhancing coordination against health threats and promoting joint actions, including deciding how to invest funds. It will be staffed with officials from both the ministries of health and finance of participating countries.
It will be initially led by Italy and Indonesia, the G20 hosts for 2021 and 2022, respectively. According to the communiqué, it will cooperate with the World Health Organization as well as receiving the support of the World Bank
The proposal was unanimously approved by the ministers, who met in Rome ahead of the weekend summit of G20 leaders.
The creation of a “Global Health Board” was first proposed by the Pan-European Commission on Health and Sustainable Development — a commission created by the World Health Organization and chaired by former Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. In a report published in September, the WHO said the board’s role could be to ensure “preparedness and responsiveness to health crises, including through the release of necessary resources.” The initiative was inspired by the success of the Financial Stability Board set up after the 2008 global financial crisis.
The G20 proposal does fall short of the full-blown board envisaged by the WHO panel. But even in its less ambitious form, it met political resistance from a number of G20 countries. In a letter obtained by POLITICO, and circulated ahead of Friday’s meeting, current and former world leaders warned of the risks of falling short and urged G20 leaders to cooperate, helping to push the initiative over the finish line.
Monti, who signed the letter with ex-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers and others, said he was pleased with the results. He told POLITICO there had been no guarantee the proposal would pass at Friday’s meeting, having encountered resistance from China and other G20 members.
“It’s an important first step,” said Monti, adding he hoped that the mechanism could be strengthened in the coming months.
The common good
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, also said he was pleased with the results.
“It appears to draw extensively on the recommendations from the Pan-European Commission,” said McKee, who sat on the WHO panel.
He said that the outbreak of the respiratory infection SARS had led to the creation of a mechanism to declare an international public health emergency. “But then there was a gap to know what you did after that,” he added. “And in particular, how you mobilized resources. This is a means of trying to fill that gap.”
The pandemic has highlighted the lack of financial instruments that countries have at their disposal for health emergencies.
The most high-profile program, the U.S. Operation Warp Speed, directed about $10 billion to early vaccine development. Billions more have been spent on vaccine donations. But those amounts are dwarfed by the hundreds of billions, or even trillions of dollars, that countries poured into their economies in the form of fiscal and monetary stimulus.
Burned by the experience of the 2008 financial crisis, deficit spending in both Europe and the U.S. helped to keep businesses and households stable. Central banks meanwhile slashed interest rates and bought national debt to help finance unprecedented government spending.
Even as the pandemic raged, the economic consequences of the intervention were remarkable, with initial job losses giving way to a bounceback in employment, and with poverty rates in some cases even falling from pre-pandemic levels.
But while governments have more experience in dealing with, and working together on, the consequences of financial downturns, international coordination throughout the pandemic has been spotty.
And increased health coordination wouldn’t just help poorer countries, said Paula Lorgelly, professor of health economics at University College London. In the case of COVID-19, raising vaccination rates worldwide also delivers “returns to wealthier countries.”
She pointed to a study by RAND that showed that every dollar spent by high-income countries on vaccines for the developing world delivered an economic return of about $4.80 to wealthier countries.
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