The Nigerian economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has been appointed as the director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO) on Monday. Okonjo-Iweala becomes the first African in the role and will lead her position as the first woman director-general of WTO from March 1. After working as a senior World Bank executive for 25 years, she twice served as Nigeria's finance minister.
The soon-to-be WTO president highlighted the dangers of 'vaccine nationalism', which would bring disparity in economic growth both in rich and poor countries by decelerating progress in ending the COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, Okonjo-Iweala told Reuters that she will work to prevent vaccine nationalism and will prioritise addressing the pandemic in her new role. She urged the WTO members to accelerate efforts to lift export restrictions slowing trade in needed medicines and supplies.
"No one is safe until everyone is safe. Vaccine nationalism at this time just will not pay, because the variants are coming. If other countries are not immunised, it will just be a blowback," Okonjo-Iweala said. "It's unconscionable that people will be dying elsewhere, waiting in a queue, when we have the technology."
She reiterated that if poorer countries do not have vaccination access soon, wealthier countries will also suffer as the global economy would face a fall in the output of almost $9 trillion.
Okonjo-Iweala added that being nationalistic is putting the international community at stake both on health and economic fronts.
"A very top priority for me would be to make sure that prior to the very important ministerial conference … that we come to solutions as to how the WTO can make vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics accessible in an equitable and affordable fashion to all countries, particularly to poor countries," she stated. Okonjo-Iweala also said that she feels optimistic about the Biden administration and their potential to help reform the WTO's Appellate Body, and addressed that it would not be a quick or easy process.