WTO PUBLIC FORUM 2021

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This year's Forum, entitled “Trade Beyond COVID-19: Building Resilience”, is focusing on the effects of the pandemic on trade and how the multilateral trading system can help build resilience to COVID-19 and future crises.

Held in hybrid format, with participation in person and virtually, the 28 September — 1 October event is the biggest public outreach event on the WTO calendar.  The 102 Forum sessions, organized by civil society groups, academics, the private sector, WTO members and others, will cover issues ranging from agriculture to digital trade, and climate change to geopolitics.

The format of the Public Forum, with a strict cap on the numbers of people allowed on the WTO premises, “reflects the fact that COVID-19 is still very much with us,” the Director-General said. “Indeed, in many of our members, the pandemic and its social and economic impacts, are getting worse.”

“But even as we fight to end the pandemic, making full use of trade's power to tackle vaccine inequity, we must engage in serious thinking about what it will take to build back a better world economy. A world economy that is greener, more prosperous and more inclusive. A world economy that is more responsive to problems of the global commons. A WTO that is more responsive to changing economic realities and the evolving needs of the people we serve.”

President Ramaphosa: need for open, inclusive multilateralism

In his keynote address, South African President Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa said the global pandemic has presented the world with one of its greatest health, social and economic challenges in more than a century.

“To overcome the challenges confronting all of us, we need global solidarity, and we must reaffirm the role of open, inclusive multilateralism,” President Ramaphosa declared.

“Through bodies like the WTO, we can rise to these challenges. And let us build a fairer, more prosperous and more resilient world.”

A relatively positive short-term outlook for global trade “is marred by regional disparities, continued weakness in services trade, and lagging vaccination timetables, particularly in poor countries,” he continued.  “We are not, as yet, building back together.”

President Ramaphosa said to achieve recovery and resilience, a top priority must be tackling vaccine inequality, including action on the joint TRIPS waiver proposal originally put forward by South Africa and India.

“This gross inequality is both unjust and counterproductive,” he declared. “The rapid and equitable rollout of life saving medical products is the best response to the virus, and the best stimulus plan for a strong sustained and economic recovery.”

The WTO “has a central role in addressing trade and intellectual property related barriers to boost and diversify production of vaccines, diagnostics, as well as therapeutics,” he added. His full speech is available here.

DG Okonjo-Iweala: Trade has been a source of resilience

In addressing the theme of the Forum, Director-General Okonjo-Iweala noted that trade has been a source of resilience during the pandemic, helping households, businesses and governments cope with dramatic shocks. Trade has enabled access to food and medical supplies and contributed to economic recovery.

Nevertheless, the rebound in growth and trade is unequal across countries and regions, like access to COVID-19 vaccines, she said.  On the latter, the Director-General reiterated that the low 4% vaccination rate in Africa is morally unacceptable and, as new variants spread, a threat to the health and economic recovery everywhere.

“The trading system can and must do more to reduce vaccine inequity, and to help us tackle pressing challenges elsewhere, from our oceans to our climate,” she declared. “That is why it is so important to deliver results at the WTO, in the weeks remaining before our 12th Ministerial Conference.”

Her remarks are available here.

Opening plenary discussion

In the opening plenary discussion that followed, World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the world's most vulnerable populations and the imperative of ensuring equitable access to vaccines.

COVID-19 restrictions, particularly travel restrictions, may have delayed importation of the COVID-19 virus but “they have also come at the highest social and economic costs, exacerbating pre-existing inequities.”

“The vaccines exist but they are not reaching the people who need them most,” Dr Tedros said.  “We need to support the capacities of all countries to roll out COVID-19 vaccines.”

Rebeca Grynspan, Secretary-General, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), stressed the importance of inclusive trade in building resilience.

“We should have stable and respected rules that are also fair in order for trade to be able to be a very positive force for development and for sustainable development,” she said.

“It is important to understand that if trade is about people, so it is about development. Trade is not a goal in itself, it has to be trade and development.”

Gabriela Bucher, Executive Director, Oxfam International, also highlighted the impact COVID-19 is having on vulnerable communities and the need for an inclusive recovery.  She echoed President Ramaphosa's call for action on the proposed TRIPS waiver to ensure greater access to vaccines in poorer countries.

“Trade is about people's lives and fair trade rules are needed for an inclusive recovery,” Ms Bucher said. “It's time to suspend monopolies and share the vaccine blueprints, so we can bring prices down and crucially grant developing countries the ability to make more vaccines.”

Dr. Sierk Poetting, Chief Operating Officer with the German biotechnology company BionTech, highlighted that the solution to the uneven distribution of vaccines is building sustainable manufacturing capabilities, particularly local production capabilities.

“We have to enable dedicated regions to have access to the know-how and make sure that those regions have everything in place to manufacture their own vaccines,” he declared. 

“You have to manage supply chains, you have to manage the equipment, and you have to manage and show the local production teams how this is done. This is an endeavour that has started, and that will continue with urgency in our company.”

Paul Polman, Former CEO and Vice-president of Unilever and now with the UN Global Compact, underscored the need to build resilient and efficient supply chains for vaccines. A health market information system could be created using available data, machine learning, and other digital tools to help identify bottlenecks quicker and bring these vaccines and medical equipment to the right place faster.

He also outlined the steps he believed are needed to ensure a “green” global economic recovery. 

“We need to align government policies to support market shifts” to a green economy. “We also need to redirect state aid and give it to more responsible industries such as renewable energy and regenerative agriculture. That's the future we want.”

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