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New UNGA chief warns nationalism fuels pandemic

The president of the U.N. General Assembly warned against unilateralism in taking on the pandemic, and called for more global cooperation on vaccines.

Turkish diplomat Volkan Bozkir, on his first day as president of the United Nations General Assembly, cautioned on Tuesday against unilateralism in taking on the coronavirus pandemic, and called for more global cooperation to develop and distribute vaccines.

"Confronting COVID-19 through multilateralism will be the overarching theme of my presidency. This is a fight that no country can win alone," said Bozkir, a legal expert and politician who was Turkey's top envoy to the European Union.

Bozkir said nations going it alone will only strengthen the pandemic, and he plans to convene a high-level special session of the 193-nation assembly in early November to bolster multilateral approaches towards the COVID-19 pandemic, including how to distribute vaccines in a fair and ethical manner.

“The pandemic has been used to justify unilateral steps and weaken the rules-based international system," he said. "International organizations have been reproached and the need for international cooperation has been questioned.”

He succeeded outgoing General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande of Nigeria, whose year-long tenure instituted virtual meetings and voting. Muhammad-Bande said in his farewell address the pandemic also showed the need for more multilateralism among health proponents.

Bozkir told socially distanced diplomats in the assembly chamber at U.N. headquarters in New York they must work to strengthen people’s faith in multilateralism and international organizations. The assembly's high-level annual gathering of world leaders is slated to get underway next week, though this year's events will be held in a mostly virtual manner by videoconference and recorded speeches.

'Blame game' of no help

At his first press conference, Bozkir told reporters that COVID-19 has exposed inequalities that require everyone to adopt "new priorities" and "different thinking" towards the future. "And I think it’s our duty to fight against the virus together," he said at an hour-long briefing. "COVID-19 is a global challenge that requires a multilateral response."

Bozkir said he believes the 194-nation World Health Organization, or WHO, is best suited to address global health crises such as the pandemic. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration announced at the start of September that it will steer clear of a multilateral effort that is intended to accelerate COVID-19 vaccines and to guarantee all nations have fair and equitable access.

The multilateral effort known as the COVAX Facility is co-led by WHO and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, both based in Geneva, along with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI, based in Oslo, Norway.

And in July, the Trump administration gave formal notice it will leave the WHO on July 6, 2021. Trump has repeatedly sought to scapegoat the U.N. health agency and China for the United States’ more than 6 million COVID-19 infections and almost 200,000 deaths, by far the most of any nation.

"I think if we go into this blame game on a U.N. institution, in a way, it doesn’t help us," said Bozkir, without singling out Trump or any other nation or leader. "At the moment, we need any expertise, any experience, from any institution — whether it’s the WHO, or whether it’s a company that’s trying to produce a vaccine."