[Episcopal News Service] Anglican Communion leaders discussed the challenges of global access to COVID-19 vaccines and urged churches and governments to work beyond their borders during a virtual panel discussion hosted by The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations on April 14.
The discussion, moderated by the Rev. Charles Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond The Episcopal Church, brought together a diverse group of voices, each with a different perspective on the pandemic and the vaccine rollout: the Most Rev. Thabo Makgoba, primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa and archbishop of Cape Town; the Most Rev. Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada; the Rt. Rev. Michael Beasley, bishop of Hertford in the Church of England; and Rebecca Linder Blachly, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations.
The discussion centered on unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines caused by “vaccine nationalism,” which occurs when wealthier countries hoard vaccines that often have been purchased at lower costs. This presents problems from moral and epidemiological perspectives, panelists said; not only does it worsen existing inequality in health care around the world, but it also threatens to delay global herd immunity and risks the emergence of variants that could evade vaccines.
Makgoba contrasted the state of the vaccination campaign in South Africa – which has about 59 million people – with that of the United States and other Western nations.
“To date, we are thinking about accessing vaccines one day,” he said. “Only 260,000 medical professionals have been vaccinated. … South Africa is still dreaming about vaccination of its citizens.”
Part of the problem, he said, is that wealthier countries like the U.S. have bought up huge amounts of vaccine supplies, and patents prevent companies in other countries from producing vaccines on their own.
“The patent laws, the licensing and the hoarding is hitting us hard,” he said.
Beasley, who is also an epidemiologist, said the global approach to vaccines has been fundamentally flawed and needs to be more holistic in order to stamp out the coronavirus.
“I just don’t think we’ve got our heads around it as a world yet that we have to ensure that every adult across the planet gets access to vaccination,” Beasley said. “Vaccination for everybody is not something we’d like to have or would be preferable or possible. It’s vital.”
He noted that while the vaccine rollout in the United Kingdom has so far been swift and successful, as long as there are unvaccinated populations, that progress could be undone by variants.
“We’ve heard from the World Health Organization that none of us are safe and protected until we’re all safe and protected,” he said. “Even where populations have been vaccinated, such as they have been in Britain, they will be vulnerable to different variants, springing up in different parts of the world.”
Some of the barriers to reaching global vaccination of adults are related to government policies and funding. Blachly said that even though the United States and other Western countries invested massive amounts of money into vaccine development, it is “time to realize that not only is there a moral obligation to look globally … and that the inequity we’re already seeing is unjust, but also that it’s actually not in anyone’s national interest to just vaccinate their own population.”
Churches can respond to these problems by calling on their governments to make vaccines more easily accessible to other countries, particularly in the Global South. There are existing international campaigns to increase vaccine access – like the WHO’s COVAX program – but panelists agreed that much more needs to be done. The Episcopal Church, for example, has signed on to a letter encouraging the Biden administration to waive vaccine patents, making it easier for other countries to produce vaccines.
Churches can also use their position as sources of trustworthy information to encourage vaccination for those who do have access to it, since vaccine hesitancy is another barrier to reaching global herd immunity. The Episcopal Church has joined the U.S. government’s new COVID-19 Community Corps program to encourage Americans to get COVID-19 vaccines and build confidence in their safety and efficacy, and the Office of Government Relations has developed a toolkit for individuals, congregations and ministries to facilitate and promote COVID-19 vaccination.
“We are seeing now how our voices as partners for the common good are still essential and powerful,” said Nicholls, adding that the Canadian government has enlisted the Anglican Church of Canada’s help and advice in encouraging vaccinations – an unusual step for a very secular nation, she said.
Nicholls said she was doing her part by getting her vaccine later today, and “now we must engage in ensuring that others have the same [access]. As Christians, it is no less than a mandate of our baptism.”
Makgoba challenged the other Anglican Communion member provinces to live up to their status as a family of churches. Families, he said, look out for each other.
“There is some degree of anxiety [in] the whole family if one family member is worried about the crumbs that fall from the table that are too small and another family member is really eating loaves and loaves of bread,” he said. “We need to advocate that all of us should get the bread and not the crumbs.”
– Egan Millard is an assistant editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.