U.N. Updates: Covid and Climate Crisis Divide Nations as Assembly Resumes

In a second day of addresses at the General Assembly, leaders including the presidents of Venezuela and Ukraine were scheduled to speak. The gathering opened with grim warnings about the state of global cooperation.

LiveUpdated Sept. 22, 2021, 3:47 p.m. ETSept. 22, 2021, 3:47 p.m. ET

In a second day of addresses at the General Assembly, leaders including the presidents of Venezuela and Ukraine were scheduled to speak. The gathering opened with grim warnings about the state of global cooperation.

Here’s what you need to know:

The U.N. General Assembly reconvenes, with global divisions as stark as ever.

Ukraine’s president says he’ll leave the Assembly early after his adviser is nearly killed in Kyiv.

Jordan’s king brings up a sore subject with Israel: Jerusalem.

Brazil’s health minister tests positive for the coronavirus at the U.N. General Assembly.

Why is China’s vow not to build new coal-powered plants abroad significant?

Who is speaking at the U.N. General Assembly, who isn’t — and why did Brazil go first?

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Abdulla Shahid, the General Assembly president, left, and the United Nations secretary general, Antonio Guterres, at the gathering on Wednesday.Credit…Justin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

After a day of somber warnings and fiery denunciations that illustrated a world divided, the United Nations General Assembly reconvened on Wednesday with the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and fault lines between democracy and authoritarianism dominating a second day of speeches by global leaders.

Among those scheduled to speak is President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, a democracy weakened by long-running conflict with an increasingly autocratic Russia. Mr. Zelensky said he would return to Ukraine immediately after his address, following an assassination attempt on Wednesday against one of his top advisers. Ukraine

Also in the day’s lineup is President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, whose repressive government has been implicated in human rights abuses and economic suffering. The address offers him another opportunity to thumb his nose at critics, including the United States.

The chaotic situations in those countries present a stark counterpoint to President Biden’s attempt, in his debut address before the assembly on Tuesday, to cast democratic institutions as “the best way to deliver for all of our people.”

“The future belongs to those who give their people the ability to breathe free, not those who seek to suffocate their people with an iron hand authoritarianism,” he said. “The authoritarians of the world, they seek to proclaim the end of the age of democracy, but they’re wrong.”

Mr. Biden spoke to a smaller than usual audience in the Assembly Hall because of the pandemic. Although he pledged to guide the United States back into a position of global leadership, Mr. Biden’s calls for international unity against the the expanding influence of autocratic nations — including China and Russia — were opposed by some of his peers who spoke from the podium and virtually.

In a prerecorded speech, President Xi Jinping of China rejected the American portrayal of his government as authoritarian, asserting that democracy is “not a special right reserved to an individual country.” Although his language was restrained, Mr. Xi’s remarks underlined China’s rivalry with the United States, a contentious relationship that the United Nations secretary general, Antonio Guterres, has warned could devolve into a new Cold War.

Mr. Xi also used his address to make the unexpected announcement that his country would stop building new coal-fired power projects overseas. The United States has repeatedly called out China for helping to build electricity plants abroad that are powered by the dirtiest fossil fuel, and Mr. Xi’s announcement — hours after Mr. Biden pledged to double U.S. funding for developing countries’ efforts to tackle the climate crisis — appeared designed to lift his country’s standing in the fight against climate change.

Iran’s new hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi, delivered an angrier denunciation of the United States, describing American power in the world as both evil and irrelevant. In a prerecorded speech, his first to the world body, Mr. Raisi cast the United States as a scourge that had unsuccessfully sought to use economic sanctions to pressure its foes.

On the eve of a summit that Mr. Biden had called at the White House to speed the delivery of coronavirus vaccines to developing nations, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines railed against the world’s affluent countries.

“There is a man-made drought of vaccines ravaging poor countries,” Mr. Duterte said in prerecorded remarks. “Rich countries hoard lifesaving vaccines while poor nations wait for trickles. They now talk of booster shots while developing countries consider half-doses just to get by.”

The police examined the black Audi in which Serhiy Shefir, a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, was shot at near Kyiv on Wednesday.Credit…Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Ukraine’s president said he would cut short his trip to New York to address the General Assembly, after one of his top advisers survived an apparent assassination attempt on Wednesday.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said he would deliver his speech on Wednesday and then return immediately to Kyiv, the capital. He had said that he planned to use the address to speak out against Russia’s military intervention in eastern Ukraine and to rally diplomatic backing for his country.

His adviser, Serhiy Shefir, was shot at on Wednesday while being driven in his car outside Kyiv, in what the authorities said was an assassination attempt. Mr. Shefir was not injured in the attack, but the driver of the car was wounded and hospitalized, Ukraine’s prosecutor general said in a statement that included a picture of the driver’s side of Mr. Shefir’s black Audi riddled with bullets.

“This is serious,” the deputy interior minister, Anton Gerashchenko, said in a brief interview. “It was a real assassination attempt.”

Mr. Zelensky said in a video message from New York that he considered the attack to be a message to him personally, but insisted that no matter who was behind it, he would not be deterred from efforts to modernize Ukraine’s economy and tackle criminality.

“Saying hello to me by shooting from the woods at the car of my friend is weakness,” Mr. Zelensky said.

Mr. Shefir, 57, is a longtime adviser to the Ukrainian president and is considered Mr. Zelensky’s closest confidant. Together with his brother and Mr. Zelensky in 2003, they founded Kvartal 95, a television production company that produced numerous popular shows and propelled Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian, to nationwide fame.

In 2019, Mr. Zelensky used his popularity to win the presidency.

King Abdullah II of Jordan delivering a prerecorded message during the General Assembly on Wednesday.Credit…Pool photo by John Angelillo

King Abdullah II of Jordan used his General Assembly address on Wednesday to remind Israel of a longstanding arrangement that gives his country custodial authority over a sacred area in the Old City of Jerusalem, a chronic flash point in the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict that exploded into war this past spring.

“For our part, Jordan will continue working to preserve the historic and legal status quo of Jerusalem and its Islamic and Christian holy sites, under Hashemite custodianship,” the Jordanian monarch said, referring to his family’s Hashemite heritage, meaning that it has common ancestry with the Prophet Muhammad.

Since Israel captured the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordan in 1967, it has maintained a fragile religious balance at the Temple Mount, the most divisive site in Jerusalem. Only Muslims can worship in the area atop the mount, the site of Al Aqsa Mosque, while Jews can pray at the Western Wall below, a remnant of the Second Jewish Temple complex that was destroyed by the Romans almost 2,000 years ago.

Under the arrangement, the Jordanian government has retained administrative oversight of the Temple Mount, known to Arabs as the Noble Sanctuary or the Aqsa compound. Israel has overall security authority over the compound and maintains a small police station there.

But the Israeli government has quietly allowed increasing numbers of Jews to pray in the compound recently, a shift that could aggravate the instability in East Jerusalem and potentially fuel religious conflict.

When the Israeli police raided the Temple Mount compound several times last spring, it contributed to tensions that burst into an 11-day war with Hamas, the militant Islamist group that rules in the Gaza Strip, as well as days of unrest within Israel.

Jordan’s king, who supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, alluded to those events in his General Assembly speech. “The bitter war on Gaza this past year,” he said, “was a reminder that the current situation is simply unsustainable.”

The Brazilian health minister, Marcelo Queiroga, in August. He tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday in New York.Credit…Adriano Machado/Reuters

Brazil’s health minister said that he had tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday in New York, where he was attending the United Nations General Assembly along with the country’s unvaccinated president, Jair Bolsonaro.

The health minister, Marcelo Queiroga, tweeted that he would quarantine in the United States and was “following all health safety protocols.” Dr. Queiroga, who is a cardiologist, received the CoronaVac vaccine, made by Beijing-based Sinovac, early this year.

The entire Brazilian delegation “has decided to self-quarantine for 14 days,” said Stephane Dujarric, a U.N. spokesman.

Dr. Queiroga had accompanied Mr. Bolsonaro during his visit to New York for the U.N. meeting. Before testing positive, he was seen on video shaking hands with Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, when Mr. Johnson met Mr. Bolsonaro on Monday.

Contrary to earlier reports, Dr. Queiroga did not meet this week with Secretary General Antonio Guterres, Mr. Dujarric said.

“We have looked into the potential exposure to U.N. staff” in the General Assembly hall, “and contact tracing is being finalized,” Mr. Dujarric said. “At present, no close contacts amongst U.N. staff have been identified.”

On Monday night, Dr. Queiroga made headlines in Brazil after he was filmed giving anti-Bolsonaro demonstrators the middle finger as he and other members of the government delegation left a dinner at the residence of the country’s ambassador to the United Nations.

The president’s office said in a statement issued late Tuesday that Dr. Queiroga would remain in the United States while he recovers and said he was “doing well.”

“We also inform that the other members of the delegation tested negative for the virus,” the statement said.

Dr. Queiroga had a busy agenda in New York. He had breakfast with a group of investors; participated in a meeting with Brazil’s first lady, Michelle Bolsonaro; paid tribute at the Sept. 11 memorial; and spoke to senior officials at the World Health Organization.

In March, he became Mr. Bolsonaro’s fourth health minister in less than a year; the first two were forced out after disagreeing with the president on handling the pandemic. Dr. Queiroga’s tenure has been marred by allegations that senior ministry officials sought kickbacks as they negotiated the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines.

Mr. Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic in South America’s largest country has been widely criticized. On Tuesday, he used his speech at the General Assembly to defend the use of ineffective drugs to treat the coronavirus and argued that doctors should have had more leeway in administering untested medications for Covid-19.

Mr. Bolsonaro, who had a mild case of Covid-19 in July of last year, has said he was in no hurry to get vaccinated, which made for an awkward exchange during his meeting with Mr. Johnson, who hailed the AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed in Britain at Oxford University.

“Get AstraZeneca vaccines,” said Mr. Johnson, who survived a serious case of Covid last year. “I’ve had it twice.”

Mr. Bolsonaro pointed to himself and said: “Not yet.”

Near a coal-fired power plant in Heilongjiang Province, China, in 2019. Xi Jinping vowed that China would stop building new such plants abroad, but he did not address domestic production.Credit…Jason Lee/Reuters

Experts on global warming have cautiously welcomed the announcement by Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday that his country would stop building coal-burning power plants abroad.

China is by far the biggest domestic producer of coal and the largest financier of coal-fired power plants around the world — a major producer of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. And the news came amid a broad international effort to reduce coal use and to keep global temperatures from rising at their current pace, which scientists have warned could be disastrous.

How many countries have coal-fired power plants funded by China?

Currently more than a dozen countries, mostly in Asia.

China’s main vehicles for financing their construction, the China Development Bank and Export-Import Bank of China, have poured $51.6 billion dollars into coal power plants around the globe, according to a Boston University tracker.

Indonesia is the country where China has invested in the largest number of coal-powered projects, according to the tracker. China has financed 21 projects in Indonesia, followed by 13 in Vietnam and seven in Pakistan.

Is China abandoning coal? Not just yet.

Domestically, China produces about 1,200 gigawatts of energy from coal, according to Greenpeace China, and Mr. Xi’s announcement did not address domestic production. The country’s latest five-year development plan, approved this year, allows for expanded coal-power construction at home for years to come.

Is China currently developing any coal power plants abroad? Yes.

New coal power plant projects across 20 countries are in varying stages of development, according to Li Shuo, a policy adviser with Greenpeace China.

For some host countries, partnering with China is the only way to draw energy from their own supplies of coal, he said. China has an abundance of money, the steel mills that are needed to make coal power plants and the engineering expertise that many other countries don’t have.

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Biden Presses Global Partners to Amplify Pandemic Response

President Biden called for a heightened, unified global response to the pandemic as he convened a virtual Covid-19 summit in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.

Nothing is more urgent than all of us working together to defeat Covid-19, and that world is going to be much better prepared for future pandemics — we have to do both. This summit is about supercharging our efforts in three key areas: vaccinating the world by dramatically ramping up vaccine production, donations, delivery and administering the vaccine, which is a logistical — it’s a logistical challenge. Addressing the oxygen crisis in many hospitals around the world, making other treatments more accessible and increasing the availability of public health tools like masks and tests, and building back better so that our global health security infrastructure is more resilient than it is today. We’ve all suffered. The United States has lost more than 670,000 of our fellow Americans, worldwide, the death toll is above 4.5 million people — 4.5 million people. And this is a global tragedy, and we’re not going to solve this crisis with half measures or middle of the road ambitions. We need to go big and we need to do our part, governments, the private sector, civil society leaders, philanthropists. This is an all hands on deck crisis. And the good news is we know how to beat this pandemic — Vaccines, public health measures and collective action.

President Biden called for a heightened, unified global response to the pandemic as he convened a virtual Covid-19 summit in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York.CreditCredit…Dedi Sinuhaji/EPA, via Shutterstock

Declaring “we need to go big,” President Biden on Wednesday called on other world leaders, pharmaceutical executives, philanthropists and civil society organizations to band together to forge a global consensus around a plan to fight the coronavirus crisis.

Speaking at the opening of a virtual Covid-19 summit he is convening in conjunction with the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, Mr. Biden cited two especially urgent challenges: vaccinating the world against Covid-19, and solving a global oxygen crisis, which is leading to unnecessary deaths among Covid-19 patients who might survive if oxygen were available.

“We’re not going to solve this crisis with half measures or middle of the road ambitions — we need to go big,” the president said, adding, “It’s an all hands on deck crisis.”

But it may be hard to turn Mr. Biden’s words into reality. Less than 10 percent of the population of poor nations — and less than 4 percent of the African population — has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Worldwide, 79 percent of shots that have been administered have been in high- and upper-middle-income countries, according to the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. Covax, the W.H.O.-backed international vaccine initiative, is behind schedule in delivering shots to the low- and middle-income nations that need them the most.

Around the world, more than 4.5 million people have died of Covid-19 — a “global tragedy,” Mr. Biden said. The president also announced a new partnership with the European Union aimed at expanding access to vaccines. And Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the United States would contribute $250 million to start a new global fund that the administration hopes will raise $10 billion to fight future pandemics.

Still, some activists say that Mr. Biden’s new plan for donating doses is not fast enough to meet the World Health Organization’s targets for raising vaccine coverage in poorer nations. Of the 1.1 billion doses that the United States has committed to donating, only 300 million are expected to be shipped this year.

And critics of the administration had low expectations for the gathering.

“This summit deserves to be, needs to be, a debate of historic dimensions,” Peter Maybarduk, access to medicines director for Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy organization, which has been urging the administration to adopt a $25 billion plan to scale up vaccine manufacturing around the world.

“But it won’t be that kind of debate,” he added, adding that he thought the hosts would unlikely to be significantly challenged by less powerful governments and vulnerable people. “It will not produce the transformative response needed to end the pandemic,” he said.

The summit began with Mr. Biden and other world leaders, including Antonio Guterres, the secretary general of the United Nations, gathering virtually for a small panel discussion entitled “Call the World to Account and Vaccinate the World,” moderated by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Mr. Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations. Participants included other presidents and prime ministers, including President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, according to an agenda obtained by The New York Times.

White House officials have said that Mr. Biden’s message to the group will be that the United States cannot fight the pandemic, or address the global vaccine shortage, on its own. Earlier Wednesday, Pfizer-BioNTech announced that it had struck a deal with the Biden administration to sell the United States an additional 500 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine, to be donated to nations that need them.

Mr. Biden heralded the deal in his opening remarks, saying it would bring to 1.1 billion the total number of doses his administration has purchased for donation. “Put another way, for every one shot we’ve administered to pay in America, we have now committed to do three shots to the rest of the world,” he said.

Drug company executives, philanthropists and leaders of nonprofit organizations have also been invited to the summit, which administration officials say is the largest gathering of heads of state to date to address the global pandemic.

Mr. Biden has been under intense pressure from global health experts to do more to address the vaccine shortage — and in particular expand manufacturing around the world. Mr. Biden said the U.S. is doing so, through a partnership with India, Japan and Australia that, he said, “is on track to produce at least 1 billion vaccine doses in India to boost the global supply by the end of 2022.”

Drug manufacturers are also under pressure to do more. The Biden administration has urged both Pfizer and Moderna to enter into joint ventures where they would license their technology to contract manufacturers with the aim of providing vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, according to a senior administration official.

Those talks led to the Pfizer donation, but the talks with Moderna have not borne fruit, the official said.

At a briefing held by Physicians for Human Rights earlier this week, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist of the World Health Organization, sounded a note of urgency and issued a plea for nations to work together to distribute vaccines in a coordinated — and equitable — fashion. She also urged countries to share their excess supplies.

“A country by country approach, a nationalistic approach, is not going to get us out of this pandemic,” she said. “And that’s where we are today.”

The seats reserved for Israel’s delegation sat empty as President Biden addressed the General Assembly on Tuesday.Credit…Pool photo by Eduardo Munoz

Several prominent leaders delivered in-person addresses at the U.N. General Assembly meeting on Tuesday, including President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, an avowed Covid skeptic whose mismanagement of the pandemic threatens his political future. Mr. Bolsonaro also created a stir by vowing to defy the meeting’s vaccination requirement.

Many leaders are opting to use prerecorded video, as was done last year, or to have a lower-ranking representative speak in person, and the absence of a particular country’s leader this year can send a message.

Perhaps the most prominent leader to skip a personal appearance at the General Assembly is President Xi Jinping of China, an increasingly important financial contributor to the United Nations and a rival with the United States for influence there, an underlying source of tension.

Mr. Xi originally intended to have his deputy prime minister represent China, but in a last-minute change posted Monday by U.N. officials, Mr. Xi addressed the General Assembly by prerecorded video on Tuesday.

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will not attend either, and his foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, will speak instead.

In what may be another sign of France’s anger at the United States over a secret arms deal with Australia, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, abandoned the idea of speaking at the gathering even by video. Instead he tapped his foreign minister, Jean-Yves LeDrian, to speak, which now could happen on the final day.

Iran’s new president, Ebrahim Raisi, also sent a prerecorded speech, skipping the opportunity for personal diplomacy that could help save Iran’s near-moribund nuclear agreement with major powers.

Mr. Bolsonaro was the first head of state to address the gathering when speeches began on Tuesday morning. Brazil has spoken first since the mid-1950s, and U.N. protocol officials say that the tradition began because at the time no other country’s leader was willing to take on that role. That position is now considered a coveted slot that can help set the tone of the week.

The order of speakers generally adheres to the principle that the leader of the host country goes second, followed by other heads of state, heads of government, vice presidents, crown princes, foreign ministers, then deputies and ambassadors. It is also determined by the date when each of the 193 members makes the request.

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