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.
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