Leaders of the world's most powerful economies will convene virtually on Thursday to try and coordinate a 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 meeting for the Group of 20 nations will be chaired by Saudi Arabia's King Salman. The kingdom, which is presiding over the G20 this year, said it organized the extraordinary meeting to advance global efforts to tackle the pandemic and its economic implications as people lose their incomes amid closures, curfews and lockdowns.
The meeting comes amid criticism that the world's wealthiest countries have not taken cohesive action to combat the virus or its economic impact on people around the world.
Saudi Arabia has also been criticized for rocking oil markets by ramping up production next month and slashing prices to gain market share after Russia, another major G20 oil producer, refused to extend a production cut agreement that had propped up crude prices.
The U.S. has already called on Saudi Arabia to rethink its strategy. In a call this week with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stressed that Saudi Arabia, as a leader of the G20 and an important energy leader, "has a real opportunity to rise to the occasion and reassure global energy and financial markets" at this time of economic uncertainty.
The global death toll from the new coronavirus, which causes an illness called COVID-19, has climbed past 21,000 and the number of infections has surpassed 472,000, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The number of dead in the U.S. rose to 1,041 as of late Wednesday, with nearly 70,000 infections. Spain's death toll has risen past 3,400, eclipsing that of China, where the virus was first detected in December.
For most people, the new 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.
There was sparring this week among foreign ministers from the Group of 7 leading industrialized democracies over whether to call out China as the source of the coronavirus. The ministers were unable to agree on a U.S. push to identify the coronavirus as the "Wuhan virus," in reference to the city in China where it first appeared. As a result, the foreign ministers opted against releasing a group statement.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are among the heads of state who will take part in Thursday's G20 leaders' summit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is taking part in the summit from her apartment in Berlin, where she is in quarantine after a doctor who gave her a pneumonia vaccination tested positive for the virus. Two tests on Merkel have come back negative for the virus, but she'll still need more tests.
The virtual summit will also include leaders from the World Health Organization, the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund, International Labor Organization and others.
Officials from Spain, Jordan, Singapore and Switzerland will also take part in the call, 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 Thursday's meeting, 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 our $1 trillion lending capacity." She said earlier this week the IMF expects a recession at least as bad as during 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 coronavirus pandemic.