For pandemic-weary audience, Modi’s UNGA speech delivers differentiated content

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s United Nations General Assembly speech on September 26 stands out among the few this year at the virtual talkfest which offered up ideas and approaches as complements to soothe the collective anxiety of a global quarantined audience.

With 150 words tucked into the middle of a 21-minute speech, Modi ripped into the core paradox of the idea of the United Nations as a cross country collaboration ninja.

Modi asked aloud what commoners on New York’s streets wonder when the annual gridlock and mass migration of diplomats drives them nuts each September. “So, what exactly does the UNGA do?”

“Where is the United Nations in this giant fight against the pandemic? Where is its effective response?” Modi asked, on behalf of 1.3 billion Indians and then proceeded to tell the world how India solves hard problems.

Modi’s pitch shone a light on India’s problem-solver avatar amidst a mass of bickering nations reciting speeches that are at best substitutes for each other. In the time of the greatest public health emergency the world has known, Modi’s talk delivered the goods for the pandemic-weary.

In a UNGA resonating with desperate pleas for a coronavirus vaccine delivery strategy, the only worthwhile complements (beyond masks and social distancing) are therapeutics, and a vaccine. In that order.

India spoke to both issues, in stark contrast to the contradictions of the UN platform which is falling well short of a truly global response to a crisis unlike any other in its 75 year history.

“Your Excellency, even during these very difficult times of the raging pandemic, the pharmaceutical industry of India has sent essential medicines to more than 150 countries as the largest vaccine producing nation in the world,” Modi said, serving notice of India’s superpower during an ongoing catastrophe.

“I want to give one more assurance to the global community today. India’s vaccine production and delivery capacity will be used to help all humanity in fighting this crisis in India and in our neighbourhood. We are moving ahead with phase three of the clinical trials. India will also help all the countries in enhancing their cold chain and storage capacities for the delivery of the vaccines.”

India’s address reflected both the questions at the heart of the 2020 UNGA and some answers, which have been elusive.

While UN leaders continue to drum up the notion of multilateralism, the nature of the coronavirus pandemic simplifies that construct to its core: If a vaccine proves effective in one country, it will spread.

The UN Secretary General framed this year’s virtual gathering as a “global conversation” but what we’re getting from the UNGA video stream is an endless talk shop filled with pre-recorded content that are mostly substitute avatars of each other.

It doesn’t really matter who is saying what because this year, the virus has made the problem definition very clear. At other times, countries could get away with vague assurances during a geopolitical stand-up at the UNGA. Not any longer.

Adding to the mix is the 100 per cent virtual format of this year’s UNGA. Real time content is not walled off, the audience needs no lanyards and complicated entry passes to witness arguments at the UN Security Council, the UN’s most powerful body. Modi turned a mirror to the cracks within, twice in the same week.

India has long sought a permanent seat on the Security Council and Modi bookended his two appearances at the UN this week tearing into UN’s “outdated” structures.

“For how long will India be kept out of the decision-making structures of the United Nations?” Modi asked. India starts a term as a non-permanent member in January.

For his part, the UN Secretary General himself is pinning the international community’s failure on what he describes as a “lack of global preparedness, cooperation, unity and solidarity”.

The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility or COVAX is a grouping of more than 150 countries pooling resources for the distribution of a future vaccine. Their target is to make two billion doses to inoculate 20 per cent of the world’s population. The US is staying away from the effort, led by the World Health Organization. Beijing and Moscow are absent too.

Guterres has tried hard to project the primary achievement of the UN as the absence of military confrontation between major powers.

He said that if the world responds to even more catastrophic challenges with the same disunity and disarray, “I fear the worst.”

The virus has altered more than just the format of the UNGA. It is calling into question the absence of the much-hyped UN clout at a perilous moment.