Social, economic and political systems and how they operate have a substantial effect on our personal welfare and happiness. Our rights and freedoms, our ability to access an education and quality health care, find economic success, and contribute to our community all impact life outcomes. Equality is only realized when everyone has the opportunity to make the most of their lives.
COVID-19 brought into sharp relief how inequality affects different aspects of life, from our ability to access life-saving vaccines to the technology that has kept us all connected. More importantly, it has reinforced what people who face the compounding effects of injustice everyday have been telling us for decades: inequality requires cross-cutting solutions because we are not single-issue individuals nor do we live single-issue lives.
To come out of this pandemic as a truly just society, we need to support the well-being of every individual and uplift the inherent dignity of all people.
It’s now evident that worldwide access to the COVID vaccine offers the best hope of slowing the pandemic and saving lives. As an economic recovery begins to take hold in certain countries, we need to confront a greater fracturing between wealthy nations and lower-income countries, driven by starkly unequal access to vaccines and other essential drugs and treatments.
While wealthy nations drove vaccine development and are seeing their populations benefit, middle- to low-income nations—particularly in Africa, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe—are lagging needlessly behind. To date, the world’s 30 poorest countries have only fully vaccinated roughly 2% of their populations. We cannot overcome the virus and its impacts unless we address the widespread, deep-seated inequities that permeate global supply and distribution chains and tackle challenges of access and uptake to equip low-income countries for mass immunization campaigns.
The main driver behind vaccine inequity is an antiquated and unjust intellectual property system that commodifies vaccines. We need a dramatic rethink of this system and its rules, so we can expand manufacturing in more countries to increase production. To make vaccines a global public good, governments need to encourage a commitment to global health over country and company interests, and the pharmaceutical companies need to share technology and know-how to scale manufacturing in middle- and low-income countries.
We also need to support the development of health infrastructure in these countries, so they can manage large-scale medical operations. They need hospitals and health centers equipped with the staff, storage and supplies to distribute vaccines and other life-saving treatments to the most remote areas, and they require the resources for community outreach to raise awareness and help people understand the benefits of these treatments, so vaccine and other drug uptake improves.
A failure to vaccinate globally puts us all at risk, not only for a new variant but a future pandemic.
Climate change alters how humans relate to other species, and that matters to our health and risk for infection. Many of the root causes of climate change are the same for pandemics—deforestation, a loss of habitat, which forces wild animals to migrate and come into contact with humans and domesticated animals. If we continue to disturb Earth’s natural ecology, we will increase the risk of spread of disease and future threats far worse than COVID-19.
Supporting Indigeneous communities is key to protecting the planet. They can significantly reduce deforestation and prevent roughly 300 billion metric tons of carbon from escaping into the atmosphere every year. While these communities claim customary rights over at least half the world’s lands and forests, they have secured legal rights to only 18%, leaving the land open for commercial development and the extraction of natural resources. Extraction exacerbates inequalities and drives climate change.
With countries emerging from COVID and governments across the Global South under pressure to jumpstart their economies—likely at the cost of exploited natural resources—time is of the essence. Governments and the energy sector need to take steps toward a low-carbon, sustainable energy transition and equitable governance. We also need to commit more resources to Indigenous peoples to scale their efforts. (Right now, less than 1% of climate finance supports Indigenous communities.) With the impacts of climate change intensifying, we must protect the planet and put a stop to future pandemics to ensure a safe future for each and every one of us.
While COVID has impacted everyone, certain communities have been hit disproportionately hard, forcing us to reckon with a long history of injustice.
Black Americans have accounted for the largest share of hospitalizations and deaths, magnifying racial health disparities that have gone unaddressed. People with disabilities, who regularly confront bias in medical care, have struggled to access critical support through the pandemic. Faced with joblessness and a lack of savings, people of color saw the worst of the financial shocks, widening an already massive gap in economic inequality. Women experienced a historic departure from the global workforce, with 2.2 million out in the U.S. alone by 2021. Gender-based violence, which was already on the rise globally, thrives on other crises and saw a significant uptick as countries went under lockdown. Women of color, immigrant and disabled women, and transgender and non-binary people are disproportionaly impacted by this type of violence.
While these communities have shouldered the burden of the pandemic, they have also been at the forefront of the fight for justice. We need to support those most affected by oppression by shifting harmful narratives and repressive power dynamics, uprooting the systems that perpetuate inequality, and strengthening the laws and policies to protect their rights, so they can live healthy, fulfilling lives free of fear. When given the power and support to lead, these diverse, multifaceted communities are driving progressive solutions to rebuild our world to work for everyone.
From working remotely to connecting with loved ones, our reliance on technology became evident in the pandemic. As much as technology has become an intrinsic part of our lives, the rapid development of new technologies has outpaced regulation and public understanding, leaving us all exposed to unchecked harms.
Innovation without clearly defined set of laws and standards can lead to adverse consequences, such as software that allows businesses to surveil remote workers, facial recognition systems that fuel racial profiling, and algorithms that unjustly calculate the recidivism risk of criminal defendants. To defend and protect individuals’ interests, we must support the growing field of public interest technology, which works across academia, civil society, and the public and private sectors to ensure innovations are created, governed, and regulated responsibly.
Technology has the potential to be a great equalizer, but we need to make sure it is seen and governed as a public good and made accessible to all. Almost half the world’s population lacks access to the internet. A recent study revealed that a lack of internet access had a direct correlation to COVID-19 deaths, making the case for access a health necessity. Access to high-speed, reliable internet opens up opportunities in education, employment, banking, health care and other important components of connection and social mobility. But those opportunities are only possible when technology is seen as a necessity for full democratic, economic and cultural participation and protected to serve the needs of all people.
Council for Non Governmental Organizations in Malawi, Joel Redman / If Not Us Then Who, North West Association of Women with Disabilities, Detroit Community Technology Project
Justine Allenette Ross
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