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Selected Steps against a Comprehensive Threat:
The G20 Leaders' Statement on COVID-19

John Kirton and Brittaney Warren, G20 Research Group
March 26, 2020

At the end of their first ever Extraordinary G20 Leaders' Summit, taking place by videoconference on March 26, 2020, G20 leaders produced the Statement on COVID-19 to publicly proclaim issues they addressed, principles they affirmed, the commitments they made and their plans to implement them. Together it was a long-awaited and welcome result, but a set of selected slow steps against a comprehensive, swiftly moving threat.

In their 1,494-word, 30-paragraph statement, G20 leaders put health first. They opened by declaring that "the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is a powerful reminder of our interconnectedness and vulnerabilities." They then declared: "Tackling the pandemic and its interwined health, social and economic impacts is our absolute priority." This was a distinctly different message from the one some leaders from the western hemisphere had previously proclaimed when they were home alone, and suggested that they had been converted by G20 summitry to the common, correctly focused cause. They added an empathetic human touch to connect with the people suffering from "the tragic loss of life" and expressed their support to the front-line workers fighting the pandemic. They then promised to do "whatever it takes" to protect lives, safeguard people's jobs and incomes, and improve people's economic situation.

The first section of the statement, entitled "Fighting the Pandemic," contained four paragraphs covering a wide range of instruments. True to the G20's first focus as an economic and finance forum, the second section on "Safeguarding the Global Economy" offered five paragraphs of measures to minimize the social as well as economic damage, restore growth, and maintain market stability. The third section, on "Addressing International Trade Disruptions," had three short paragraphs on trade measures to "support the health and well-being of all people." In the concluding section, on "Enhancing Global Cooperation," the five paragraphs integrated the G20's health, economic and trade measures, while adding tourism, refugees and migrants, and the security issues of border management and citizen repatriation.

Selected Steps Forward

Together the G20 leaders took many important steps. In their principled and normative direction setting, they affirmed the G20's first distinctive foundational mission of promoting financial stability, but gave more attention to the G20's second one of making globalization work for all. On the latter, they specified that they would protect the most vulnerable, send supplies "where they are most needed," offer "adequate social protection," "support the health and well-being of all people," and help developing and least developed countries, Africa, small island states, and refugees and displaced persons. On the causal component of the principles they affirmed, they promised to mount a science-based global response, in contrast to messages heard from some G20 leaders in their instinctive, impromptu, self-confident utterances back home.

In their decision making, the G20 leaders produced 47 public, precise, future-oriented, politically obligatory commitments, covering a wide range of subjects (see Appendix A). They again put health first, with 20 commitments, followed in turn by the global economy with nine, trade with seven, international cooperation with four, financial stability and development with three each, and labour/employment with one. This compares with the performance of G7 leaders in their emergency videoconference 10 days earlier on March 16, who produced 33 commitments, including 21 and health and 12 on the economy, to confront a crisis that was at that time less deadly than it is now.

The 47 commitments made by G20 leaders on March 26 included many that promised to mobilize new money, for health, economic growth, jobs and development. Here the economy came first, with the headline number of $5 trillion devoted to this purpose.

To help deliver these decisions, G20 leaders instructed their health and finance ministers to meet regularly to follow up. Such meetings of ministers responsible for a particular subject are the strongest predictor of members' higher compliance with their leaders' related commitments under that same presidency. This thus suggests that greater compliance will come. Compliance with the 75 health commitments that G20 leaders have already made at their regularly scheduled summits averages only 73%, but there is there is a firm basis on which to build.

In the institutional development of global governance, G20 leaders guided their own institutions and those outside in many ways. Inside the G20, they tasked their "Health Ministers to meet as needed to share national best practices and develop a set of G20 urgent actions to jointly combatting the pandemic by their ministerial meeting in April." They called for a joint meeting of finance and health ministers in the coming months, an institutional innovation Japan had pioneered at the Osaka Summit it hosted in 2019. G20 leaders now also asked their finance ministers and central bank governors "to coordinate on a regular basis to develop a G20 action plan" and declared their support for the Financial Stability Board (they had created and control.

Outside the G20, they started with the World Health Organization (WHO) with seven references, declaring "We fully support and commit to further strengthen the WHO's mandate in coordinating the international fight against the pandemic, including the protection of front-line health workers." They followed by guiding the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank Group with three references each, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the United Nations, International Labour Organization, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development with one apiece.


Yes despite this promising start several shortcomings stand out.

First, there was no increase in the permanent base budget of the WHO. Instead, the focus was on disease- and instrument-specific purposes that raise issues of transaction costs and gaps in achieving the needed health in all policies, including the whole-of-global-governance and whole-of society policies needed now.

Second, G20 leaders did not mandate medical assistance to be provided across borders, nor did they commend the world of non-governmental organizations such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent Society, Médecins Sans Frontières, which selflessly help perform such tasks.

Third, G20 leaders did not commit to debt relief for the poorest, in a way that could give hard-pressed recipients the funds for health care that they badly need.

Fourth, their promise to liberalize trade in health and related goods and services was partial and weak. Even in the section on trade the G20 leaders did not refer to the potential role of the World Trade Organization in this regard. Nor did they promise to temporarily suspend some of their members trade sanctions on Iran, Venezuela and other such countries now struggling with a COVID-19 crisis that could easily spread to their G20 neighbours and others close at hand.
Fifth, there was no reference at all to gender. This was despite the great gender divide in those who are currently dying of COVID-19 as patients, many of whom are men, and those on the front-lines who are serving and dying — the nurses, home care and long-term care workers, and cleaners — many of whom are women.
Sixth, there was no move to make the WHO director general a permanent member of the G20 summit, as the IMF and World Bank have been from the start.

Finally, the G20 leaders thus left much to do even as the COVID-19 pandemic escalates in the coming months. But unlike the G7 leaders 10 days before, the G20 leaders did not promise to meet again next month to continue their work.

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Appendix A: G20 Leaders' Statement on COVID-19 Commitments

Compiled by Brittaney Warren

Subject Number of commitments
Health 20
Global economy 9
Trade 7
International cooperation 4
Financial stability 3
Aid 3
Labour and employment 1
Total 47


2020-1: We are strongly committed to presenting a united front against this common threat. (international cooperation)

2020-2: The G20 is committed to do whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic, along with the World Health Organization (WHO), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank Group (WBG), United Nations (UN), and other international organizations, working within their existing mandates. (international cooperation)

We are determined to spare no effort, both individually and collectively, to:
2020-3: Protect lives. (health)
2020-4: Safeguard people's jobs and incomes. (labour and employment)
2020-5: Restore confidence, preserve financial stability, revive growth and recover stronger. (financial stability)
2020-6: Minimize disruptions to trade and global supply chains. (trade)
2020-7: Provide help to all countries in need of assistance. (aid)
2020-8: Coordinate on public health and financial measures. (health)

Fighting the Pandemic

2020-9: We commit to take all necessary health measures (health)

2020-10: [We]…seek to ensure adequate financing to contain the pandemic and protect people, especially the most vulnerable. (health)

2020-11: We will share timely and transparent information; (health)

2020-12: [We will…] exchange epidemiological and clinical data; (health)

2020-13: [We will…] share materials necessary for research and development; (health)

2020-14: [We will…] strengthen health systems globally, including through supporting the full implementation of the WHO International Health Regulations (IHR 2005). (health)

2020-15: We will expand manufacturing capacity to meet the increasing needs for medical supplies and ensure these are made widely available, at an affordable price, on an equitable basis, where they are most needed and as quickly as possible. (health)

2020-16: We fully support and commit to further strengthen the WHO's mandate in coordinating the international fight against the pandemic, including the protection of front-line health workers, delivery of medical supplies, especially diagnostic tools, treatments, medicines, and vaccines. (health)

2020-17: We will quickly work together and with stakeholders to close the financing gap in the WHO Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan. (health)

2020-18: We further commit to provide immediate resources to the WHO's COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund…on a voluntary basis. (health)

2020-19: [We further commit to provide immediate resources to…] the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI)…[on a voluntary basis.] (health)

2020-20: [We further commit to provide immediate resources to…] Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, on a voluntary basis)…[on a voluntary basis.] (health)

2020-21: To safeguard the future, we commit to strengthen national, regional, and global capacities to respond to potential infectious disease outbreaks by substantially increasing our epidemic preparedness spending. (health)

2020-22: We further commit to work together to increase research and development funding for vaccines and medicines (health)

2020-23: [We further commit to work together to]…leverage digital technologies (health)

2020-24: [We further commit to work together to]…strengthen scientific international cooperation (health)

2020-25: We will bolster our coordination, including with the private sector, towards rapid development, manufacturing and distribution of diagnostics, antiviral medicines, and vaccines, adhering to the objectives of efficacy, safety, equity, accessibility, and affordability. (health)

Safeguarding the Global Economy

2020-26: We commit to do whatever it takes and to use all available policy tools to minimize the economic … damage from the pandemic (global economy)

2020-27: [We commit to do whatever it takes and to use all available policy tools to]… minimize the … social damage from the pandemic (global economy)

2020-28: [We commit to do whatever it takes and to use all available policy tools to]… restore global growth (global economy)

2020-29: [We commit to do whatever it takes and to use all available policy tools to]… maintain market stability (global economy)

2020-30: [We commit to do whatever it takes and to use all available policy tools to]… strengthen resilience. (global economy)

2020-31: We will continue to conduct bold and large-scale fiscal support. (global economy)

2020-32: We will continue to address risks of debt vulnerabilities in low-income countries due to the pandemic. (global economy)

Addressing International Trade Disruptions

2020-33: Consistent with the needs of our citizens, we will work to ensure the flow of vital medical supplies, critical agricultural products, and other goods and services across borders (trade)

2020-34: [Consistent with the needs of our citizens, we will work to]…resolve disruptions to the global supply chains, to support the health and well- being of all people. (trade)

2020-35: We commit to continue working together to facilitate international trade and coordinate responses in ways that avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade. (trade)

2020-36: Emergency measures aimed at protecting health will be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. (trade)

2020-37: We reiterate our goal to realize a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment (trade)

2020-38: [We reiterate our goal to]…keep our markets open. (trade)

Enhancing Global Cooperation

2020-39: We will work swiftly and decisively with the front-line international organizations, notably the WHO, IMF, WBG, and multilateral and regional development banks to deploy a robust, coherent, coordinated, and rapid financial package and to address any gaps in their toolkit. (financial stability)

2020-40: We stand ready to strengthen the global financial safety nets. (financial stability)

2020-41: We will strengthen capacity building and technical assistance, especially to at-risk communities [developing countries, least developed countries, Africa and small-island developing states] (aid)

2020-42: We stand ready to mobilize development and humanitarian financing. (aid)

2020-43: We stand ready to react promptly and take any further action that may be required. (international cooperation)

2020-44: We express our readiness to convene again as the situation requires. (international cooperation)

2020-45: We will protect human life (health)

2020-46: [We will]…restore global economic stability (global economy)

2020-47: [We will]…lay out solid foundations for strong, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth. (global economy)

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