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Message from G-20: COVID-19 villains and heroes hold keys to vaccinating the world | Trudy Rubin

Laggard leaders of Russia, China and Brazil skipped G-20 and are drag on ending the pandemic but Biden and Modi can overcome them.

President Joe Biden exchanges gifts with Pope Francis during Friday's meeting at the Vatican.
President Joe Biden exchanges gifts with Pope Francis during Friday's meeting at the Vatican.Read moreDivisione Produzione Fotografica

Just before global leaders gathered in Rome for the G-20, to blather about confronting COVID-19 globally, a damning report was issued by a Brazilian Senate committee.

The 1,200-page document recommended that President Jair Bolsonaro face criminal charges for crimes against humanity, charlatanism, and malfeasance for his refusal to confront the pandemic, leaving Brazil second only to the United States globally in COVID-19 deaths, with more than 600,000 fatalities.

The populist Bolsonaro, a proud Trump clone, ridiculed scientists, downplayed the virus (even though he caught it), fired health professionals and replaced them with inept cronies, promoted fake cures like hydroxychloroquine, and debunked safety measures. Sound familiar? “There is a murderer hidden in the presidential palace,” said the report’s main author.

The message from Brazil is that the struggle to crush this pandemic, and prevent the next one pits authoritarians who undermine it against democratic leaders who may be hobbled at home.

» READ MORE: India's COVID-19 tragedy has lessons for global vaccinations | Trudy Rubin

Pope Francis urged Biden, at their Vatican meeting, to focus on closing the vaccine gap for poor nations. And the G-20 leaders assembled in Rome wanted to send a visual message when they posed in a joint photo with doctors in white coats and first responders from the Italian Red Cross.

They know that around 76 % of the vaccine shots administered have been in high and upper-middle income nations and only 0.6% in low-income countries. They also know that unvaccinated populations can generate new variants which spread around the world.

But missing from the photo were not only Bolsonaro but non-attendees Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia. Their absence undercuts any unified global struggle to end the pandemic, for different reasons. The COVID-19 villains have caused millions of unnecessary deaths and may enable the next pandemic.

Russia, with its technological prowess, should have been a global vaccine leader, but the Kremlin is so wedded to secrecy that no one trusts Russian statistics. Russia’s domestic-made vaccine, Sputnik-V, was rolled out without sufficient testing, and is not internationally recognized. And the government’s failure to promote or combat vaccine hesitancy has led to a shockingly low vaccination rate of 32%.

The kicker, however — that undermines the world’s ability to trust Russian vaccines — is that Russia has recorded 753,000 excess deaths during the pandemic, a figure demographers use to measure the real impact of pandemics. That means that Russia, with less than half the U.S. population, may have exceeded America’s 740,000 coronavirus casualties.

However, the Kremlin only admits to 235,000 dead, and Putin has been in hiding for most of the pandemic. No wonder Putin didn’t want to show up in Rome. No leadership for global vaccinations there.

As for China, Beijing brags that it has distributed over a billion vaccine doses to the world — but most have been sold to rich Asian countries, not donated to poor ones, with very few going to Africa.

Moreover, China still refuses to provide the World Health Organization with the data that could determine the pandemic’s origin — from a Wuhan lab accident or an animal-to-human transfer. Meanwhile, Chinese state-controlled media promote fake stories that it began in the United States and Italy. That is shameful, given that both the SARS virus and COVID-19 almost certainly began in China.

Unless the world knows how this pandemic originated, China could become the breeding ground for new and lethal variants of the virus. With his absence from Rome, and lack of transparency, Xi Jinping put nationalist politics above any concern for vaccinating the world.

Health activists have criticized the G-20 for accomplishing little on the pandemic, and the White House for pledging only 1 billion doses for poor nations. The anger increases as many doses go unused in the U.S., due mainly to the GOP’s whipped-up hostility to vaccines for political benefit. Too bad domestic politics prevents a Brazil-like investigation into vaccine villains here.

» READ MORE: Kudos to Biden for efforts to combat COVID-19 but the fight begins at home I Trudy Rubin

However, there are potential heroes in this fight, such as President Joe Biden, and one other whose name may surprise you: Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. Both leaders may be crippled by domestic politics or broken global supply chains. But their future performance will be critical for vaccinating the world.

The key to vaccinating the world is likely to be ramped-up production in poorer countries such as India and South Africa, in cooperation with Western vaccine manufacturers who license the technology or offer it for free.

India, home to the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturers, was supposed to play that role, promising hundreds of millions of doses to poorer countries, to be distributed by an international nongovernmental organization with funding from the Gates Foundation.

But the populist Modi totally botched the initial vaccination of his own people, leading to a staggering explosion of the virus at home and a ban on exports to low-income countries.

Fortunately, Modi shaped up and India has now administered over one billion doses, and has a home-produced vaccine waiting for global approval. While only a quarter of India’s population is fully vaccinated, the Indian leader says the country is ramped up to start sending vaccines abroad.

If Biden and private funders team up with Modi, there is a potential pairing that could speed the inoculation of poorer global citizens. That would give a huge boost to global democracies and put virus villains to shame.