Opinion: Time to fix COVID global crisis of apathy

The CEO of an Atlanta-based international nonprofit writes that this week’s COVID-19 summit should focus on the critical issues at the center of a so-far-anemic global pandemic response.

Earlier this year, CARE warned that, absent significant investments in both global vaccine procurement and delivery, the COVID pandemic would morph, worsen and become endemic to the most vulnerable people in the world’s lowest-income countries. This was not a prediction I would have hoped to see come true, but here we are.

The global trajectory of the pandemic, the emergence of new variants, vaccine hesitancy, and the lack of urgent action and resourcing to stem the tide of the pandemic, all mean we are facing a third year of living under the thumb of this virus.

But the COVID-19 pandemic is today as much a crisis of apathy as it is a health crisis.

Millions have already died, and hundreds of thousands more continue to die, while vaccines remain out of reach for billions of people. To date, less than 2 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one shot, but we need to vaccinate 70 percent of the global population.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

To do this, we need at least 14 billion doses – not just procured, but in the arms of the world’s most vulnerable people. Equitable vaccine delivery is the only way we can beat this pandemic, but we are nowhere close to where we need to be.

That is why we welcomed the recent announcement of a Virtual COVID Summit on September 22 by the Biden Administration, and the U.S.’ call to all global leaders “to make new commitments to fight the coronavirus pandemic, including by fully vaccinating 70 percent of the world’s population by next September.”

Also welcome is President Joe Biden’s invitation to “international organizations, business, philanthropic, and non-governmental leaders to come together to commit to ending the COVID-19 pandemic.” This crisis demands an unprecedented global response across sectors – but our global leaders must act with greater urgency and an entirely different threshold of concerted action.

Humanitarian organizations have been calling for a more aggressive global response to the pandemic since last year, drawing on decades of vaccination experience to inform and mobilize a sustained global effort around fast and fair vaccine delivery.

For example, we know that the ACT-A Health Systems Connector, which was designed to provide low- and middle-income countries with support for vaccine delivery, is dangerously underfunded: As of July 2021, the Health Systems Connector had a USD $7.3 billion shortfall.

So, one item that needs to be on the agenda is securing commitments from participating nations to fully fund ACT-A Health Connector plus bilateral funding for country gaps in financing locally coordinated delivery.

Moreover, of 5.09 billion vaccine doses secured, contracted for, or received to date, COVAX has shipped only 191 million to 138 countries. Of the 580 million doses committed by the U.S., only about 112 million have been delivered. And hundreds of thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses are expiring before they can be used in low-income countries.

That is why prioritizing equity in vaccine delivery – especially focusing on those too often marginalized, like women and girls – must be top of mind. As does centering the role of frontline and community health workers – including the millions of unpaid and unrecognized women health workers and caregivers.

We also know that countries with fragile health systems will need much more funding than ACT-A plus their domestic finances can cover. So beyond bilateral aid to fill the gap, we also need to create centralized, transparent reporting of COVID-19 funding and set timeline goals for funds to be deployed more quickly.

Finally, we have laid out a financial argument for why the Global North (comprising wealthier industrialized countries) should invest in equitable last-mile delivery – noting that for every dollar spent on vaccine production, another five dollars needed to be invested in delivery. That means a minimum of $50 billion (using IMF numbers).

So, I hope that this week’s summit focuses on the critical issues at the center of a so-far-anemic global pandemic response. It must include last-mile delivery to everyone. To be fair, three months ago delivery wasn’t even a part of the conversation at the G7 Summit.

Today, there’s an emerging focus on delivery and Biden proposed a target of $10 billion for delivery - an encouraging start.

But, when world leaders meet, this must be the beginning of an urgent and comprehensive process – not a missed opportunity like the last G7 COVID Summit, which talked around the reality of billions of unvaccinated people but missed the boldness and concerted action that is required.

The longer this goes on, the more it is a self-made crisis --a problem that could be relegated to the poorest and most-vulnerable for years to come.

But our failure will not only mean millions of people die unnecessarily, it will also mean that all of us suffer the disruptions, economic and health downstream impacts of a pandemic that continues to extend its dangerous reach.

It’s time to step up and end the pandemic -- for everyone.

Michelle Nunn is the president and CEO of CARE USA, an Atlanta-based international development and relief organization that works around the world to save lives, defeat poverty and achieve social justice.

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