The Truth About Why We Urgently Need Global Vaccine Equity
Even as the pandemic may be receding in the United States, in many parts of our world, it continues to rage.
On May 4, 2021, I was part of a virtual consultation/webinar on the pandemic and worldwide vaccine equity, sponsored by the International Association of Methodist Schools, Colleges, and Universities (IAMSCU) and the Ecumenical Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and Sacrament. The panelists included church leaders and public health experts from five different continents speaking from their local context. Hearing their testimonies opened my eyes to the how much I have approached COVID from a place of economic privilege as I have encouraged everyone I know to wear face masks, keep physical distance from others out in public, and regularly wash their hands.
As a faculty member of a major university, I was among the first in my state to have access to a COVID-19 vaccination, and I jumped at the opportunity. As others in my community receive the vaccine, we are witnessing a gradual return to such simple pleasures as seeing neighbors without face masks. Every day I praise and thank God for the dedicated medical researchers who developed the COVID-19 vaccines, for the medical professionals who are administering the shots, and for companies and government agencies that have provided the funding to make this possible.
Bishop Joaquina Nhanala, a Methodist from Mozambique, on the other hand, began her presentation with these stark realities: “How can Mozambicans practice these health protocols when so many of us live in crowded one-room homes, sharing at best one mask for the whole family, and without access to clean water and soap?” Such contextual problems loom large when we address the pandemic globally.
Though distancing and masking protocols will continue to be important for those who are able to practice them, the IAMCSCU consultants all stressed that vaccination is the surest way to mitigate the effects of COVID and will be crucial to ending the pandemic and saving lives. According the CDC, as of late May, 2021, roughly 50% the adult population in the U.S. is fully-vaccinated (for up-to-date information, see: https://covid.cdc.gov/covid-data-tracker/#vaccinations). But even in the U.S. there are inequities, with lower rates of vaccination among black, brown, and indigenous communities. Globally, vaccination rates tend to correspond to the level of economic development, since wealthy nations usually have stronger public health institutions. To vaccinate the world, wealthy countries will have to share vaccines and distribution avenues, and probably will also need to open patents in order to facilitate production of vaccine supply. This will take a considerable commitment of financial and other resources.
It would be a mistake, however, to think of this merely as foreign aid or Christian charity. Dr. James Hildreth, renowned immunologist and President of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, spoke about the danger of inaction: “It is imperative that the global population be vaccinated as soon as possible…because as long as the virus is allowed to replicate in large numbers of human beings there's a possibility that a variant will arise that the current vaccines do not cover…What that actually means is for the whole world we go back to the beginning, to
start making vaccines to cover the variant.” He ended with this warning: “The biology of viruses teaches us that none of us are safe from COVID-19 until all of us are saved from COVID-19.” In short, whether we accept it or not, all humanity is in this together, and the virus doesn’t care.
But God does care. Or as Bishop Nhanala put it, “We worship a God whose character is equity and who intends the well-being of all people.” I’m not sure what scripture the bishop was citing, but my mind was drawn to the Psalms, and I noticed that often reference to the equity of God shows up in psalms of praise: “Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob” (Psalm 99:4, NRSV). To praise a God who is equitable in his love and mercy requires us to seek equitable access to the vaccine for the well-being of all.
In response to the consultation, IAMSCU issued a “Declaration on Global Vaccine Equity and Call to Action,” that states:
On behalf of a global network of more than one thousand institutions related to the International Association of Methodist-related Schools, Colleges, and Universities (IAMSCU) in eighty countries and five continents and in partnership with the Methodist network of disaster response and health clinics, we resolve to provide key resources, including reliable scientific information, and to expedite equitable distribution and accessibility of the COVID-19 vaccine worldwide.
Among the actions we commit to undertake is “to join with other organizations and people of good will in enhancing the common good by promoting these actions for the sake of human flourishing.” For love of God and neighbor, please join us in this movement.
Readers may find the full text of the Declaration here.
Ed Phillips is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Christian Worship at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, and co-convener of the Ecumenical Consultation on Protocols for Worship, Fellowship, and Sacrament.
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