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Blog: Pandemic defines first ‘hybrid’ WTO Public Forum in Geneva

The WTO Public Forum kicked off today in Geneva with delegates eager to get back into the swing of networking and debating critical trade issues. Rob Francis shares his impressions.

Even during the ritual opening plenary session it was clear that this Forum would not be like its predecessors.

This year’s event is centred around the theme Trade Beyond COVID-19: Building Resilience. But any notion that Covid-19 was indeed behind us quickly dissipated. Facemasks are obligatory throughout the building and social distancing is strictly enforced with coloured stickers on conference tables indicating where to sit.

In-person participation is sparse compared to previous years, reflecting how difficult it is for non-Europeans to travel to the Swiss city.

Where in previous years there were scrums to access rooms and documentation, today one could enter the room and find a place without any danger of infringing social distancing rules.

Perhaps aware of the optics of the audience looking too European, WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, presiding over her first Forum, opened the speech in person before giving the floor to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who appeared on the big screen.

Ramaphosa did not pass up the opportunity to echo his country’s call for a “time-bound, targeted” IP waiver and criticise agricultural subsidies, referencing a UN report that says they will reach US $ 540 billion (€ 462 billion, £ 398 billion)  a year, rising to US $2 trillion  (€ 1.71 trillion , £ 1.48 trillion) a year by 2030.

On the vaccine issue, Okonjo-Iweala has consistently refused to come out on either side of the debate, noting that her role as Director-General is to be a convener of discussions.

Yet given her objective to make the WTO work more for people in general, handing the floor to Ramaphosa appeared to be a very deliberate and political act designed to highlight not just inequitable access to vaccines across the world – at least 60% of developed countries are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, compared to just 3% in Africa – but also possible solutions.

The plenary session concluded with an online panel debate featuring representatives from Gabriela Bucher of Oxfam International, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Rebeca Grynspan of United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), former Unilever CEO Paul Polman, and BionTech COO Sierk Poetting.

In this session again, the IP waiver was a constant thread running through discussions, with Poetting having to defend his company’s commitment to technology transfers in the face of passionate calls, notably from Bucher and, Polman for a waiver.

Here too Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala watched on, as ever quiet on the issue at hand, but letting other speakers get them across.

The public forum is set to continue for the rest of the week.

At some points the atmosphere is eerie, with hybrid sessions taking place in vast rooms with just a handful of participants physically present.

Yet the online presence tells a different story. There are over 5,000 online registrations for the Forum, and a relatively niche event on carbon border mechanisms this afternoon drew in over 150 participants, even when having to compete with five other events taking place at the same time.

It may be a scene of relative peace in the WTO’s lakeside headquarters, and it may indeed have a very European feel in person, but outside and online the world is buzzing with talk of trade.

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