All news

UN chief: Russia’s vaccine can play crucial role in coronavirus battle

'My decision is to be available'
Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations
© UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, didn't come to this interview empty-handed. As we geared up for the meeting, he said, “excuse me, but I need to produce some propaganda first," and handed me face masks with the UN emblem as a gift. The Secretary General creates the impression of a charming grandfather in personal conversations. But he surprisingly changes as soon as we start to talk about international affairs, in which he seems to feel personal responsibility … by working towards defeating the pandemic, reducing emissions, nuclear disarmament and bettering relations among the world’s superpowers.

- Two weeks ago, you confirmed your decision to be nominated as a candidate for the head of the United Nations for a second term. Was it a difficult decision for you or did you not hesitate?

- First of all, as you can imagine I’m separated from my family. I’d been separated when I was High Commissioner for Refugees for 10 years, now I’ve been separated for the last 4 years. So, I could not be available without consulting my family first. And also, since there are immense responsibilities, I had to do all the medical checks, which I completed during my Christmas holidays when I went back to my home country.

But the decision was an easy one. My decision is to be available. It’s for the member states to decide. I humbly express that I’m available if member states decide that it is the best solution for the UN.

My decision was easy in the sense that I’ve always been a man of public service. In my life, it is something that can be described as “The Parable of the Talents” in the Gospel. In “The Parable of the Talents” the Lord gives servants a certain number of coins (the Talent is the currency of the Roman Empire) and the message of the Parable is that we must be able to match what we receive by multiplying it in order to be able to give to others, if they did not receive the same.

And I was extremely privileged in my life. My family provided me with the best education available. When I was young I lived through the democratic revolution in my country that ended a right-wing dictatorship, which allowed me to immediately have a very active political life, and positions of responsibilities that I would say were far beyond being suited for my age at that time. Later, I had the opportunity to be High Commissioner for Refugees, it was a fascinating opportunity to work for the most vulnerable. So, I was extremely privileged and extremely lucky all my life. I received many “Talents” and it’s my duty to utilize them in the service of others who have not received them.  

So how can anyone be useful especially to vulnerable people, to poor people, to marginalized people, to those who suffer because of poverty or discrimination? How can anyone be useful? I felt that by doing what I’m doing, I have the opportunity to be useful which would perhaps be difficult to find in any other position. So, I thought it was my duty to humbly tell member states that I’m available.

- What will be your top priorities during the next five years if you’re elected?

- We had a terrible year, 2020 was probably the worst year of our lives; particularly because of the pandemic. And we must make 2021 the year to reverse that situation. We must replace despair with hope. This must be the year that vaccines are put on track. So obviously there are two immediate fundamental priorities given the fragilities of the world which this pandemic has spotlighted. The fragilities regarding the virus, regarding climate [issues], inequality and geopolitical division, also they're fragilities in nuclear disarmament and cyberspace. Thus, we have a very fragile world. And we need to put things back on track.

Of course, the two obvious priorities for 2021 are to recover from and defeat the pandemic, and to make sure that we have a sustainable and inclusive recovery.

- Do you have a formula on how to defeat the pandemic?

- To defeat the pandemic we need to make sure that vaccines become a global public good and become available and affordable for everybody. Regarding the accessibility of vaccines: we cannot have a world where people are The Haves that can get it and a world of poor people that are The Have Nots that don’t have that possibility.

When I see developed countries pouring a lot of investments into the vaccination of their people and not enough into the vaccinations of developing countries, I always remind them that if the virus is left to propagate like wildfire in the global South, it can have mutations, mutations make it easier to transmit [the illness] as we are already seeing, and eventually more resistant to vaccines. So, the only way to guarantee that some people are safe is to have everybody safe. Our priority now is to make sure that the COVAX facility led by the WHO is fully funded and that we create conditions for the developing world to have exactly the same access to inoculations.

It is also necessary to mobilize resources and capacities in order to enable developing countries’ economies to recover. We have seen developed countries spending millions, my estimate is 12 trillion U.S. dollars, towards the recovery of their economies, but only 1% went to the least developed countries. They are facing dramatic problems of debt. Furthermore, they have lost income from tourism, income from remittances, and revenue from the export of raw materials with prices plunging.

We need to work hard in 2021 to make sure that there is effective debt relief. The G20 took some decisions to postpone the payments of debts for the least developed countries, but we need debt relief on a much larger scale. And we need to increase the liquidity available for developing countries through more resources from international financial institutions.

Also, we have been strongly appealing to the issuance of new Special Drawing Rights which is the modern way to print money.  Until now this has not been possible because the US with the past administration had been opposed to that measure and the IMF has not greenlighted its issuance.

- What's your assesment of Russia's contribution to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic?

- First of all, Russia is a founding member of the United Nations, a permanent member of the Security Council and these are central pillars of our multilateral system. It’s important to mention that.

Russia has developed a vaccine and has made this vaccine available. It made a very generous offer to the UN. The only condition that the UN has in relation to inoculations is that we can only use vaccines that are approved by the WHO. I know that there are contacts at the present moment between the Russian authorities and the WHO, I hope that those contacts will lead in the quickest possible way to an approval or recognition by the WHO.

We believe that the Russian vaccine can play a very important role in that battle that I’ve mentioned. We need to make sure that we have vaccines available and affordable to everybody everywhere.

- And if, or when, it is approved, can it be used by the United Nations?

- It can be used in many of the UN’s operations in some vulnerable areas of the world where we will need vaccines for our staff and for the population which we support in our peacekeeping operations in fragile countries. So, we hope that the Russian vaccine will play an important role in that regard.

- You also mentioned a second priority…

-  And the second [one] is the climate emergency. 2021 is vital because we are on our way to COP26 in Glasgow. We believe that we must take what the scientific community tells us seriously. Thus, we need to keep the increase in temperature to up to 1.5 degrees at the end of the century and simultaneously that demands that we should reach carbon neutrality by mid-century. For that, we need to have a very dramatic reduction of emissions over the next decades.

At the same time, we have to make sure that measures are taken to re-establish equilibrium between nature and humanity.

- What’s your assessment of Russia’s steps in helping to achieve these climate goals?

- Regarding the climate issue, the Russian President has recently appointed a Special Envoy on Climate (senior adviser on climate change Ruslan Edelgeriev). Also, Russia announced that it would be presenting a number of important measures in order to reduce emissions. Of course, we will be in close contact with the Russian Federation pursuing the maximum possible effect and that Russia joins the global coalition for carbon neutrality, which is absolutely essential.

Today, Russia is a country dramatically impacted by climate change – we see it in the forest fires and in the tundra melting. My belief is that Russia has an important interest in defeating climate change and has a very important contribution to make in this battle.

- You said that we need to get "back on track". The vaccines gave us hope that this “back to normal” is right around the corner, but now with the new virus mutations, it doesn’t look this way. So, what are your predictions – when will the world go “back to normal” or will there not be any “old normal” at all?

- For the moment there is still a strong hope that even with the mutations that existed at least some of the vaccines would be effective. But this only demonstrates how important it is to vaccinate everybody everywhere as soon as possible. If we eradicate the virus or if we limit its expansion, the probability of mutations will be non-existent or very small.

If the virus spreads like wildfire in vast regions of the world, the mutations become inevitable and we might get a situation where it would be a calamity of the flu, which every year we have new vaccines against because during the in-between period the virus mutates. We cannot create a situation in which COVID becomes a new flu because COVID is much more devastating in relation to the lives of people and economies and societies in general.

- So, do you have any predictions on when we can get back to our lives without masks and sanitizers?

- Well, even with the vaccine we still need to keep our precautions, because it’s not clear if the vaccine prevents transmission. So at least for the time being we need to maintain the measures of social distancing, the use of masks, and washing hands frequently.

I hope that if these vaccines become available everywhere and there are mass vaccinations throughout this year, [then] next year will be much more different. And if we really do get rid of COVID, we will return not to what we were, but, hopefully to a better world. Because we need to learn from what happened and address the fragilities that I had mentioned in the beginning of our conversation.

We need to be able to address the problems of inequality, the problems of climate, and the quality of our health systems. I’m strongly in favor of universal healthcare. We need to achieve more gender equality. In all areas, we need to learn from the mistakes that we have committed in the past to be able to have a better future.

- The new US administration has already taken some positive steps, including the renewal of the New START Treaty. You called on the US and Russia to move "as soon as possible towards negotiations on new arms control measures”. Which measures precisely do you expect to see?
- We had a progressive evolution of nuclear disarmament over the decades with successive agreements specifically between the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation and the United States. At a certain moment, this stopped and we have even seen things reversing. We had agreements that were put into question in the recent past and now we have the renewal of New START.

It’s vital to renew New START, but it’s also vital to catch up with what was lost in the recent past and to make progress both in relation to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Because these are two sides of the same coin. We need to keep non-proliferation as the central objective, and to have no more nuclear powers. But we also need make our way towards effective arms control and progressive disarmament.

- Do you think the P5 Summit proposed by President Putin can help to achieve this goal?
- I think the relationship among the most important powers in the world has been dysfunctional. It’s very important that this relationship becomes more functional, and it will benefit everybody. The division among the superpowers facilitates the work of spoilers, that undermine peace in different parts of the world and so a summit among the P5 is something that we are looking forward to with highly positive expectations.

By Maria Khrenova