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Virtual Davos targets pandemic-era mistrust

Thousands normally descend on Davos this time of year. But with the pandemic still raging, WEF will meet virtually to take on mistrust and division.

The central Belvedere Hotel during WEF's Annual Meeting at Davos, Switzerland
The central Belvedere Hotel during WEF's Annual Meeting at Davos, Switzerland in pre-pandemic times (AN/Robert Scoble)

Thousands of political and business leaders normally descend on the Swiss ski resort of Davos this time of year. But with the coronavirus pandemic still raging, the World Economic Forum will instead meet virtually — to take on mistrust and division.

Organizers with Geneva-based WEF, an international organization for public-private cooperation, announced on Monday its "Davos Agenda 2021" virtual meeting will focus on bridge-building and multilateralism, and the headliners will include Chinese President Xi Jinping, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and South African President Cyril Ramaphos.

Five days of online meetings are set to replace the forum's usual in-person annual meeting in Davos that traces its roots to the 1970s, when its founder and executive chairman, Klaus Schwab, a German economist and former business professor, began inviting leaders there. WEF plans a special in-person version of the annual meeting for Singapore in May, but anticipates returning to Davos in 2022.

"Rebuilding trust and increasing global cooperation are crucial to fostering innovative and bold solutions to stem the pandemic and drive a robust recovery," Schwab said. "This unique meeting will be an opportunity for leaders to outline their vision and address the most important issues of our time, such as the need to accelerate job creation and to protect the environment.”

More than 1,500 leaders from at least 70 nations — significantly fewer than the usual 2,500 leaders that Davos has drawn in past years — are expected to join the virtual meeting to tackle economic, environmental, social and technological challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to WEF's organizers. Their work will be used by WEF task forces preparing for the Singapore meeting.

Among the other expected political leaders, including heads of state and government officials, are Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, French President Emmanuel Macron, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Heads of international organizations planning to take part include United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, IMF Managing Kristalina Georgieva, U.N. Development Program Administrator Achim Steiner, World Food Program Executive Director David Beasley and European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde.

Exchanging ideas, visions

On the same day as WEF's announcement, Tedros, who heads the U.N. health agency, expressed moral outrage at how rich nations’ young, healthy adults are getting vaccinated for the coronavirus ahead of poor nations’ elderly and health care workers.

And earlier, on Friday, as the world surpassed 2 million deaths from COVID-19, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a video message that vaccine nationalism ultimately is self-defeating and will delay a global recovery.

Confirmed COVID-19 infections have exceeded 95 million — two-thirds in the Americas and Europe, where most new vaccines are being rolled out — with a staggering 2 million deaths and 52 million recoveries worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University and Google data trackers.

But the pandemic also has accelerated systemic changes to many aspects of people's lives that were already in motion before the spread of coronavirus since late 2019, according to WEF, which is why the Davos virtual gathering will focus on these five themes:

  • January 25 — Designing cohesive, sustainable, resilient economic systems
  • January 26 — Driving responsible industry transformation and growth
  • January 27 — Enhancing stewardship of the global commons
  • January 28 — Harnessing the technologies of the "Fourth Industrial Revolution," a reference to automated technology
  • January 29 — Advancing global and regional cooperation

Schwab said trust is needed above all to overcome the pandemic, requiring what he called engagement by the "multilateralism system 4.0" and entire business community. "What we do is we launch a process to build the future," he told a virtual press conference. "And the purpose of this week is to take stock, to look at the state of the world, to exchange visions and ideas, and to show directions."

WEF's president, Børge Brende, a former Norwegian foreign minister, said "we know that we are all in the same boat, and we have to collaborate to really make progress." He emphasized the importance of participation by leaders of Asia economic leaders such as China, India, Japan and South Korea, since the region accounts for half the world's population and GDP.