From Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye, Abuja

The Director-General of the World Trade Organization, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has promised that the trade body will work to reduce export restrictions among member states, especially with regards to medical supplies in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

She gave the assurance in Abuja when she met with members of the Presidential Task Force on Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic at the Office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation, Boss Mustapha.

The WTO DG, who said she was on a thank-you visit to Nigeria and the ECOWAS for the support she received in the run-up to her election into the global trade body, stressed that in a pandemic an economy cannot be advanced until the health sector is taken care of.

‘The main reason we are here is really to see how the WTO can support Nigeria, in improving its economy. And part of doing that is health. We are in a pandemic and of course, you cannot advance the economy until you take care of the health aspects. And so what the Secretary to the Government office is doing along with the presidential Task Force is laudable, and we wanted to just discuss with them, one, what is happening, the arrival of the COVID vaccines, how that is being distributed, the challenges, opportunities on the way of that and that the WTO can do,’ she said.

‘Interestingly, trade is very instrumental in access to medical supplies and equipment, because how do they get from one place to the other? It is through trade. And part of the challenges we’ve had in this pandemic is the fact that some of our member countries put export restrictions on the movement of medical supplies, equipment, and even supplies to make vaccines.

‘So, one of the things that WTO can do is to work with members to reduce these export restrictions. If you take vaccines, for instance, I’ll just give you one number from the manufacturer of Pfizer, the Pfizer BioTech vaccine. We had a meeting with the manufacturers a couple of days ago in Geneva and their representative said that it takes 280 components to manufacture their vaccine. And it’s in a supply chain that involves 19 countries. So in the supply chains, so many of our products, medical products are global. And so when a country puts export restrictions on one, it means that you slow the production everywhere, that’s where the WTO comes in. Because, we have certain rules that members should abide by, with respect to these restrictions. And we play a fundamental role in making sure that medical supplies and equipment and vaccines circulate.

‘And you remember at the beginning of the pandemic, there are many countries, you know that blocked export. So we’ve managed to get that reduced. There were 91 countries at the beginning, who had restrictions and prohibitions on the export of medical supplies and equipment. We are now down to 59. So we’ve reduced considerably but still too many my view. And so that’s one of the things we’re trying to get right.

‘So we are here to see what we can do to support Nigeria. I have to personally say, I was chair of GAVI, the vaccine alliance for five years, one of those who designed the COVAX facility and have been very proud of the ability to make available to poorer countries and to emerging markets like Nigeria, access to vaccines at affordable prices. So we will continue to push that. And we want to see what the challenges and opportunities are and how it’s going.

‘Let me say I’m proud to now of the progress that has been made. It sounds good. And I hope we can continue in that way.’

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In his remarks, the SGF and Chairman of PTF noted that the pandemic came with a lot of effects and impacts on the nation’s economy but provided an opportunity for the country to really go back and look at its systems.

‘The good thing about COVID-19 is that it has exposed the weaknesses of all systems. Even the most established democracies and economies have been brought to their knees by the adverse effects of COVID-19. But I think the developing economies stand to benefit if they learn from the lessons of these adverse impacts and look at their systems, their governance system, their economic foundations, and the need to heighten inclusion in the way we develop our agendas and our programmes,’ Mustapha said.

‘Because it has totally exposed the weaknesses of how inclusive our society is and that informed part of the challenges we are having in our country, especially in the areas of security. And I believe that you would be of tremendous help to us in making sure that Nigeria has an equitable share in trade negotiations. And also help coordinate to ensure, like you rightly say that the streams of medical supplies are not in any way hindered, because we are not out of the woods yet when it comes to issues of the pandemic, we are just midstream.

‘Our vaccines have arrived. And I want to take this opportunity to truly thank you for your efforts as chair of GAVI, in ensuring because I kept getting reports that you are on everybody’s neck to ensure that Nigeria got its supplies. You see that is the benefit that we stand to derive as a country when you have one of your own in a particular position and we want to thank you for that. When Ghana got theirs and we didn’t get, as a taskforce, we came under intense pressure, and we were having a sleepless night. And I told them that is not a matter of competition. These things are being scheduled. But I was comforted that you, would help us get through.

‘So, I want to take this opportunity to truly welcome you home. And to honestly express our deepest, profound congratulations to you and also our expectations of you. You’ve never failed in any assignment. I believe that this one has just brought you to the focus when the world is deserving of equitable trade policies and policies that would help developing economies be able to favourably compete in the world market.

‘As you spend some more time at home before you return to your base, we will continue to uphold you in prayers because Nigeria is a praying country. So that your tenure will bring succour and relief to countries that are under intense economic pressure. With budget deficits left, right and centre with the deficits in infrastructure, housing deficit. We definitely believe that your tenure will bring succour to each and every one of us.

‘On behalf of the Presidential Task Force, we want to thank you for acknowledging the modest efforts that we have put in place in the cause of one year, it was quite tricky. We didn’t know what to do at the beginning. Same with every part of the world they didn’t know what to do because COVID-19 took the world with a storm. However, our modest efforts have kind of helped us in interrupting the spread of COVID-19. And now that vaccines have come on board, the combination of vaccines and the non-pharmaceutical interventions will help us turn the tide and dumping the spread and eventually we’ll begin to return to something that looks like normal.’

Mustapha also congratulated Okonjo-Iweala for being the first woman and the first African to have ascended to the office of the DG of the WTO, saying her new position is timely considering the various conflicts Nigeria was facing.

The PTF chairman said: ‘At a time when Nigeria is conflicted, somehow it is at its best in the international arena. Your election is a testimony to your proven track record. You are not new to the political landscape in this country, at least in the last 20 years, you’ve been very constant in promoting the costs of Nigeria’s economic, sustainable development. And you have continued in that stride, even at the international level, in your other engagements at the World Bank, and other multilateral or bilateral platforms in which you have exercise.

‘So, we are very, very confident that your election into this office will bring a lot of good goodwill to Nigeria. And it would help us advance the cost of development in this country. I’m quick to say that this is one of our finest moments internationally, because of the positions that Nigeria holds at the international level. At the global level, we have you and we have Hajia Amina Mohammed, who is the Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations. At the continental level, particularly in the areas of finance and economy, we have the president of the African Development Bank, we have the president of the AfroExim Bank. So Nigeria, as a matter of fact, controls how money is spent or raised on the continent of Africa. And we also have at the AU for the first time, a commissioner who was elected of recent. And I believe, with all these resourceful persons holding this very, very strategic offices, you will bring your wealth of experiences to bear in helping us back at home, recalibrate our entire developmental efforts.’