In a sign of the times, the traditional “family photo” of leaders in the summit was digitally designed and superimposed on a historical site just outside the Saudi capital, Riyadh, which would have hosted the gathering. The kingdom has presided over the G20 this year.
The pandemic, which has claimed more than 1.37 million lives worldwide, has offered the G20 an opportunity to prove how such bodies can facilitate international cooperation in crises – but has also underlined their shortcomings.
Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said in the summit’s opening remarks: “We have a duty to rise to the challenge together during this summit and give a strong message of hope and reassurance.”
While G20 countries have contributed billions of dollars toward developing a vaccine for the virus, they have also mostly focused on securing their own vaccine supplies.
Countries such as the UK, US, France and Germany – all G20 member states – have directly negotiated deals with pharmaceutical companies to receive billions of doses, meaning that the vast majority of the world’s vaccine supply next year is already reserved.
A day before the summit, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said that while 10 billion dollars (£7.5 billion) has been invested in efforts to develop vaccines, diagnostics and therapeutics, another 28 billion dollars (£21 billion) is needed for mass manufacturing, procurement and delivery of new Covid-19 vaccines around the world.
Mr Guterres called on more G20 nations to join Covax, an international initiative to distribute Covid-19 vaccines to countries worldwide. The United States has declined to join under President Donald Trump.
The pandemic has had a far-reaching economic impact on developing countries and pushed millions into extreme poverty.
It has also plagued the world’s wealthiest nations, with nine G20 countries ranking highest globally for the most cases of Covid-19 recorded.
The United States tops the list, followed by India, Brazil, France, Russia, Spain, the UK, Argentina and Italy, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University.
Three G20 leaders participating in the summit have been infected by the coronavirus this year: Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and US leader Donald Trump.
The virus shows no signs of abating as major cities in the US and Europe bring back lockdowns and curfews.
The World Health Organisation says more cases of Covid-19 have been reported in the past four weeks than in the first six months of the pandemic.
The International Labour Organisation says an equivalent of 225 million full-time jobs were lost in G20 countries alone in the third quarter of 2020.
G20 member countries represent around 85% of the world’s economic output and three-quarters of international trade.
As part of the summit, seven leaders released video messages on “Pandemic Preparedness and Response”. France’s president Emmanuel Macron warned of the challenges in obtaining “universal access to health technologies against Covid-19”.
German chancellor Angela Merkel called for strengthening the World Health Organisation and stressed the pandemic can only be overcome if an affordable vaccine is available to all nations.
In a video statement released ahead of the summit, Mr Johnson appealed to global leaders to harness the resources of the world’s wealthiest nations to end the Covid-19 pandemic and tackle climate change.
“Our fates are in each other’s hands,” said Mr Johnson, who plans to attend two virtual events at the summit while self-isolating at home in London after coming into contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19.
Mr Bolsonaro, who spent months downplaying the severity of the virus while deaths mounted rapidly inside Brazil, emphasised in a video message that world leaders “should take care of people’s health and of the economy at the same time”.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, is among other G20 leaders expected to participate in the closed-door virtual sessions that are taking place Saturday and Sunday.
It does not appear that any leaders have dropped out of the summit, despite calls by rights groups, legislators and EU parliamentarians for leaders to boycott the gathering to protest against Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and the war in Yemen.
G20 heads of state last gathered virtually for an emergency meeting in March as the coronavirus was spreading around the world. At the time, they vowed “to do whatever it takes to overcome the pandemic”.
The nations have since agreed to suspend debt payments for the world’s poorest countries until mid-2021 to allow those nations to focus their spending on health care and stimulus programmes.
The UN secretary general, however, has called on the G20 to extend debt repayments through the end of 2021 and expand the scope to middle-income countries in need.
King Salman said: “I am confident that the Riyadh summit will deliver significant and decisive results and will lead to adopting economic and social policies that will restore hope and reassurance to the people of the world.”