DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Leaders of the world's most powerful economies convened virtually on Thursday with the aim of coordinating a global response to the fast-spreading coronavirus, which has shuttered businesses and forced well over a quarter of the world's population into home isolation.
The unusual video call in lieu of a physical gathering comes as governments around the world stress the importance of social distancing to curb the spread of the highly infectious virus.
The meeting comes amid criticism that the world's wealthiest countries have not taken enough action to combat the virus or its economic impact globally as people lose their incomes due to closures, curfews and lockdowns.
Saudi Arabia, which is presiding over the G20 this year, opened the meeting with an urgent appeal by King Salman for the world's most powerful nations to finance the research and development of a vaccine for the virus, which causes an illness known as COVID-19, and to ensure the availability of vital medical supplies and equipment.
“This human crisis requires a global response. The world counts on us to come together and cooperate in order to face this challenge," the Saudi monarch said during the virtual summit.
The meeting was not open to the media to observe. The Saudi government distributed the king's remarks to the press.
Images from the video conference were shared on social media by some of the participants. World leaders like India's Narendra Modi, Japan's Shinzo Abe and Canada's Justin Trudeau, whose wife contracted the virus, could be seen in little boxes on a screen seated at desks in photos from European Council President Charles Michel. U.S. President Donald Trump was shown seated at the end of a long conference table in Washington with other American officials in photos shared by the Saudi Foreign Ministry.
The meeting was also expected to include Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was taking part in the summit from her apartment in Berlin where she is in quarantine after a doctor who gave her a pneumonia vaccine had tested positive for the virus. Two tests on Merkel have come back negative, but she'll still need more tests.
The virtual summit also included leaders from the World Health Organization, the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, International Labor Organization and others.
The global death toll from the virus has climbed past 22,000 and the number of infections has surpassed 480,000, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Disagreement between the countries erupted this week among the Group of 7 leading industrialized democracies, which sparred over whether to call out China as the source of the coronavirus. The foreign ministers were unable to agree on a U.S. push to identify it as the “Wuhan virus," in reference to the city in China where it first appeared. As a result, the group opted against releasing a statement after the call.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia, which organized Thursday's broader G20 summit, has been criticized for rocking oil markets by ramping up production next month and slashing prices to gain market share after Russia, another major oil producer, refused to extend production cuts. The U.S. has pressed Saudi Arabia to reconsider it's current strategy.
Also on the global call were leaders from Spain, Jordan, Singapore and Switzerland, as well as chairs of regional bodies like the African Union, the Association of South-East Asian Nations and the Gulf Cooperation Council.
The International Labor Organization says nearly 40% of the world’s population has no health insurance or access to national health services and that 55% — or 4 billion people — do not benefit from any form of social protection whatsoever. It said the current health crisis makes clear that not nearly enough progress has been made by governments in the years since the 2008 financial crisis to expand access to health services, sickness benefits, and unemployment protection.
The International Monetary Fund and World Bank issued a call on G20 countries ahead of the virtual leaders' summit, warning of severe economic and social consequences for developing countries, home to a quarter of the world's population and where most of the world's poorest people reside.
The lenders called for a suspension of debt payments from these countries and asked G20 leaders to task the World Bank and IMF with making the needed assessments on which countries have unsustainable debt situations and immediate financing requirements.
“It is imperative at this moment to provide a global sense of relief for developing countries as well as a strong signal to financial markets,” the lenders said in a joint statement.
IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva has said the lender stands “ready to deploy” all of its $1 trillion lending capacity. She said earlier this week the IMF expects a recession at least as bad as the 2008 global financial crisis or worse. Nearly 80 countries are requesting IMF help.
Ethiopia's government told G20 finance ministers and Central Bank chiefs in a call ahead of Thursday's summit that Africa needs a $150 billion emergency financing package due to the impact of the virus.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged G20 leaders to adopt a “wartime” plan including a stimulus package “in the trillions of dollars” for businesses, workers and households in developing countries trying to tackle the pandemic.
Associated Press writer David Rising in Berlin contributed to this report.
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