Global community must unite against vaccine racism and nationalism

05 August 2021 | Opinion

NALEDIA PANDOROn 18 July the world marked 103 years since the birth of our late beloved global icon and first president of our democratic republic, Dr Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. The United Nations family used this occasion to reflect on the first and second goals of the Sustainable Development Goals: ending poverty and achieving zero hunger. And, of course, key to these is saving lives first, in accordance with the third goal on health.

In his famous autobiography, ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, Mandela reminds us that he was born in a year in which humanity faced challenges similar to the current challenges confronting the world, specifically the Covid-19 pandemic: “The year of my birth marked the end of the Great War; the outbreak of an influenza pandemic that killed millions throughout the world.”

Were he alive today, having been born amid such challenges and into a life of struggle that was given momentum by global solidarity, he would most certainly urge us as humanity to rise together in solidarity to save the lives of all, everywhere, because none of us is safe until all are safe.

A firm believer in strong and effective multilateralism, with the UN at the forefront, undergirded by the equality of nations, Mandela would have stressed the importance of all nations rising and working together, sharing ideas and the means and all tools needed to end this vicious pandemic, which knows no boundaries. Central to this is equitable, secure, predictable and affordable access in real time to vaccines and all the tools nations require to respond to the pandemic.

It would have been a matter of grave concern to Mandela that Africa, the second-most populous continent with more than 1.3 billion people, is last in line for access to vaccines, while the richest countries are well advanced in vaccinating their people while hoarding vast reserves of doses even as they deny developing countries the capacity to produce vaccines. This is the type of injustice that would have been intolerable to Mandela. We owe it to his legacy to vigorously demand and achieve universal access to vaccines now.

As a practical expression of the values that Mandela stood and fought for, we hope member states of the UN will join and support President Cyril Ramaphosa, the Covid-19 champion of the African Union and co-chairperson of the ACT-A Facilitation Council, in his urgent call to end vaccine nationalism and, indeed, vaccine apartheid.

Mandela would have been at the frontline of the campaign of the African Union and the developing world for an urgent waiver of the World Trade Organisation TRIPS Agreement to ensure rapid upscaling of the production of Covid-19 vaccines and medicines and sharing of technologies needed to end the pandemic and save lives.

While the natural instinct to protect the interests and megaprofit margins of a few may tell us that it is impossible to act in the interests of all humanity, I remind you, as Mandela said, that “it always seems impossible until it is done”. That is how apartheid was defeated in South Africa, in the face of seemingly indomitable might.

We are now one year into the Decade of Action, following the promise made by our leaders when they adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, which embodies our shared vision to end poverty, address unemployment and income inequalities within and between countries. Data on the impact of the pandemic tell us that developing countries have lost at least two decades of development. Literally, many developing countries are at ground zero, if not back to where they were towards the end of the last century and millennium with respect to the Millennium Development Goals.

Towards the end of his life, poverty eradication was chief among Mandela’s concerns and he urged us to address this because “as long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality persist in our world, none of us can truly rest”. In Madiba’s honour, we must spare no effort in ensuring that the progress lost in attaining the Sustainable Development Goals because of the pandemic is recovered speedily so that as we build back better, truly, no one is left behind, particularly with regard to food security.

Key to this are all the means of implementation necessary for an integrated approach to these goals in their interdependence and indivisibility as a package of human rights. Our interdependence as economies means that we either come out of the pandemic by building back better together, or we scramble individually in survival-of-the-fittest mode to the detriment of sustained and inclusive global growth, which is absolutely necessary for the eradication of poverty and hunger – our ambition. The collective effort needed for this may seem daunting, but always remember: “It always seems impossible until it is done.”

While the influenza pandemic of 1918 and Covid-19 have life-threatening challenges in common, they both fell upon an old pandemic that is equally deadly and which has yet to be fully and effectively addressed: systemic racism.

As we work together to respond to Covid-19 we must also redouble our efforts to combat systemic racism globally. It has severely complicated our response to the pandemic. The victims of systemic racism have been hit hard by Covid-19, bearing a heavy burden imposed by loss of lives that could have been saved.

We urgently need collective action based on agreed outcomes. The UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, held in Durban in September 2001, took place just after Mandela retired from public office, but he retained a keen interest in its outcomes as he had spent 27 years in prison for challenging white supremacism and the apartheid regime.

Hence, as part of the outcomes of the conference, Mandela, and the former UN high commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, co-signed the visionary declaration, ‘Tolerance and Diversity: A Vision for the 21st Century’, along with more than 70 heads of state and government. Its opening words are apt today:

“As a new century begins, we believe each society needs to ask itself certain questions. Is it sufficiently inclusive? Is it non-discriminatory? Are its norms of behaviour based on the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights?

“Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and all kinds of related intolerance have not gone away. We recognise that they persist in the new century and that their persistence is rooted in fear: fear of what is different, fear of the other, fear of the loss of personal security. And while we recognise that human fear is ineradicable, we maintain that its consequences are not ineradicable.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action. We welcome the decision of the UN General Assembly to hold a one-day, high-level meeting to commemorate the anniversary in September in New York on the theme, “Reparations, racial justice and equality for people of African descent”. The declaration is the most comprehensive programme yet for combating racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance.

Mandela made huge personal sacrifices in his lifelong commitment to fighting racism and discrimination. It therefore goes without saying that the biggest tribute we as this international community can accord him in this regard is to ensure continued international commitment to, and implementation of, the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action so that we may rid our minds, our attitudes, our communities and our world of the scourge of racism and all its manifestations.

Systemic racism has had a pernicious effect on many communities and compounded the impact of the pandemic on its victims. In addressing the security and predictability of the supply of vaccines, at the core of which is the waiver we demand, addressing racism is also critical.

When former US president Barack Obama delivered the 2018 Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture, he said Mandela “understood the ties that bind the human spirit”. He went on to say that: “There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – that describes his greatest gift; his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that can be invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us. As we say: ‘Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu’ or ‘I am, because you are.’ This is how we describe the meaning of Ubuntu. It speaks to the fact that we are all connected, and that one can only grow and progress through the growth and progression of others. Ubuntu has since been used as a reminder for society on how we should be treating others.”

For us, “Ubuntu” in the words of Mandela means: “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

We could not agree more with Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, when he says: “The pandemic is not over anywhere until it is over everywhere.”

None of us is safe until all are safe.

*Naledi Pandor is the South African minister of international relations and cooperation.