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‘Vaccine passports: Double whammy for jab-nots’


World Trade Organization (WTO) director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala lands in the capital on Wednesday to discuss ways to push the stalled global trade talks. Ahead of her meetings with top ministers and fintech players, SMEs and women entrepreneurs, the first woman to occupy the top seat in the trade body tells TOI that India needs to show flexibility in negotiations, while supporting its position on farm issues, patent waiver for Covid vaccines as well as red-flagging vaccine passports and other measures that restrict trade and movement of people. Excerpts: Being the first woman DG and the first from Africa, do you feel an additional burden of expectations?So far, there’s been wonderful support from everyone. Obviously, the expectation is that even though I am the DG for all, this is a time when the African continental free trade agreement can be supported by the WTO. This is the time when someone who knows the continent’s problems is at the helm. So, there is some expectation, but it’s realistic. What will be the priority areas and key message when you land in Delhi?The first message is to thank India for its leadership and to say that I am cognizant of the issues and problems it raises at WTO, trying to be helpful to other developing countries. I am cognizant of the intellectual property issue, I have said that we need to get a resolution before MC12 (next month’s ministerial meeting in Geneva) and my message to India would be that let’s be pragmatic so that we can bring the two sides together. Let’s try and get an agreement that will enable developing countries to have easier access to vaccines and technology and know-how, while not disincentivising research and innovation. I also want to thank India for the export of vaccines and lifting the export prohibitions recently. Most of what was being held back was AstraZeneca products from Serum Institute, which were destined for the African continent. Now that they have lifted the prohibition, those will be delivered to Covax. I was one of the people designing Covax. The other big message will be that India should support MC12 because WTO is being seen as not being able to deliver a multilateral agreement. How realistic is it to expect a breakthrough at the ministerial meeting?It is very difficult. But from the (recent) G20 and OECD meetings, it appears there are ministers who are very supportive. The momentum needs to translate to ambassadors in Geneva. I am a realistic person and I know that countries have their positions and problems. Big countries like India need to be listened to, to understand where they are coming from. On food security issues, I am very sympathetic to India’s concerns. But at the same time, I don’t think it serves the interests of developing countries or India to keep blocking these agreements. People are already fishing illegally and if you don’t get an agreement they will continue to do so, depleting fish stocks. By the time you decide 20 years from now that you want to agree, you will have no fish. One of the concerns that India has is on vaccines and vaccine passports becoming trade barriers. Do you see Covid-related issues becoming trade barriers?We are against using vaccine passports as barriers to movement or any kind of barrier to trade. It will not work due to the tremendous vaccine inequity in the world — are you going to victimise countries that do not have access to vaccines all over again? They have not got vaccines either because all the vaccines have been bought over by the rich countries or there are export prohibitions. It will be a double whammy, double victimisation. Is it time to change the WTO decision-making system since one country can block anything?The consensus system is a precious resource to be guarded because it gives equal power to everyone. What is happening now is that many people do not see the system working for them. If you have a system where everything is blocked due to lack of consensus, then people may wonder why they are in the system and may start using other systems. You can see the levels of frustration in not having multilateral system work leads likeminded countries to go and negotiate plurilaterals. We have 105 countries negotiating the investment facilitation agreement, 86 countries are negotiating e-commerce, 65 or so are close to an agreement on services domestic (regulations). India is questioning the legality of this instrument. I am saying let’s make the multilateral system work.


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