Rowan Williams tells government: take the lead on vaccine equality

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By Catherine Pepinster

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has challenged the British Government to “step up” and lead the G7 summit to take action to improve poorer nations’ access to Covid-19 vaccines.

Only two or three people in every 100 in Africa have received Covid jabs, compared with 100 per cent availability in the UK. Lord Rowan Williams, who is chairman of Christian Aid, said: “Something has to be done about this. If our own country really means what it says about taking a leadership role in this meeting, and in the world, if all this stuff we’ve heard about global Britain is not just waffle, then I think it’s time for our own government to step up and say this is necessary.”

Rowan Williams made his intervention as the leaders of the G7 nations were arriving in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, for their summit, hosted by the UK. It is the first opportunity the G7 — the Group of Seven wealthy democracies comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the United States — has been able to meet since the pandemic began. Top of the agenda is global trade, strengthening the international system against future pandemics and tackling global climate change.

Speaking at a seminar on the summit, organised by the Religion Media Centre, he said: “There are three deeply interconnected problems that need to be tackled – the pandemic, the environmental crisis and the issue around debt”. G7 leaders had the chance to show they had learned something from the pandemic by using the summit as an opportunity for a joined up response of a kind that we haven’t yet seen.

The seminar heard how faith groups and their aid agencies were not only acting as moral lobbyists on issues such as vaccines, climate change and poverty but also have the financial clout to make a difference themselves.

In the discussion, faith representatives joined Lord Williams in calling on governments to change the way vaccines were distributed and paid for, including the waiver of the intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines so that poorer nations can freely make the vaccines themselves.

Karimi Kinoti, Christian Aid’s Head of Africa, said equitable access to vaccines is something that Cyril Ramaphosa — the former South African president who is representing the 54 African nations at G7 — is due to call for during the Carbis Bay talks.

This stark difference between such poor access to the vaccines and the effectiveness of the rollout in prosperous western countries is a political and a moral scandal, according to Fr Augusto Zampini, a key adviser to Pope Francis.

Fr Zampini, who works in the Vatican at the Dicastery (department) for Promoting Integral Human Development and is also a member of the Pope’s Covid-19 Commission, told the webinar that holding on to the intellectual property rights surrounding the vaccines was preventing societies from flourishing.

He warned that it would not only harm the poorest but the whole global population, because lack of vaccination would allow the coronavirus to flourish. “If we keep trying to get the vaccines just for a few, it won’t work. So, all our efforts, our lockdowns or whatever, will be in vain. Covid, as any virus, doesn’t know any frontier, any barrier.”

The interconnectedness of people is matched, according to the seminar speakers, with the interconnectedness of issues besetting humanity. Those most affected by the pandemic and lack of vaccines are also those most affected by the growing impact of climate changes and by debt. Climate change, Lord Williams said, was further destabilising already-precarious economies.

The jeopardy that these economies face is being exacerbated, according to many aid agencies run by faith groups, by the British Government’s contentious decision to cut its aid budget from 0.7 per cent to 0.5 per cent of national income — equivalent to a cut of £4bn a year. Charities such as Oxfam and Christian Aid have said this will mean families going hungry and girls missing out on schooling.

Shahin Ashraf, from Islamic Relief, was among a group of faith agency representatives that presented a petition to Downing Street on Wednesday urging reinstatement of the funds, said the cuts would disproportionately affect women and girls. But she called for more than just efforts to restore the world to what it was pre-Covid. “People speak about building back better. I would say that we should try and build back differently,” she added.

According to Ruth Valerio, global advocacy influencing director of the Christian agency Tearfund, who is lobbying at G7, the pandemic has shown that change is possible. “When faced with an unprecedented emergency, we can change, we are resilient, we can be creative, we can come conjure up the money, when it’s needed, we can do things,” she said. She and other aid lobbyists will be urging the summit leaders to devise ways that communities can be more resilient and more sustainable in the wake of climate change.

Churches and other faith bodies have plenty of practical experience of helping develop more sustainable communities. Cafod is part of the Catholic Church’s Caritas organisation, which helps to provide healthcare, education and other services around the globe, and Cafod’s director, Christine Allen, said churches’ lived experience meant they could report what ordinary people’s lives were like to political leaders.

“So often, the voices of ordinary people, and particularly the voices of those who are poor and powerless, are not heard. They’re not at the table. They’re not being influenced able to influence the G7,” Ms Allen said.

“One of the things I think that the Pope does is that he helps bring those voices, that perspective of what does the world look like, when you’re when you’re poor and powerless. That’s a reality that our politicians need to hear.”

According to Ms Allen, the Pope has two roles: representing people in this way and also having an impact on global leaders’ thinking with his teaching, such as Laudato Si’, his document on the environment, which was published six years ago before the Paris agreement. That caused a significant shift, she said, with world leaders starting to talk about moral imperatives.

Martin Palmer, an environmentalist and chief executive of the FaithInvest organisation, and a member of the Pope’s Covid-19 Commission, said there was a debate over whether the Pope should just be a moral leader who lobbied and complained, or whether faith organisations should flex more of their financial muscle to make a real difference on decisions about energy use and sustainability. If faith groups could do both, he said, “we are in a much stronger position not just to be lobbyists, but to actually be the agents of stakeholder change”.

About 1,000 faith groups are now preparing long-term environmental plans and Mr Palmer’s FaithInvest is in talks with the World Bank to create a faith development fund that would channel investments from faith organisations into areas such as climate change programmes. With faiths’ longer-term thinking and its grassroots connections, this kind of work could inspire governments that are usually focused on the short-term and a top-down approach, Lord Williams said.

According to Ms Allen, aid agencies were trying to move away from a top-down approach by becoming more decentralised and supporting local people to develop their own capacity. “We’ve recognised that our role is one of support and now they influence their own governments and agencies like the United Nations,” she said.

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