Faith leaders call on Congress to lead the response to a global pandemic
Right now, the commandments to love thy neighbor and care for the sick mean protecting one another from COVID-19 with masks, vaccines and facts.
But since no Christian, church, or nonprofit can solve a global problem through individual action alone, these fundamental beliefs also lead us to call on Congress and the president to use budget reconciliation to fund vaccines for the rest of the world — a measure that will help our American neighbors just as much as it will the global poor.
As reported on Friday, the Biden administration’s plan to directly purchase millions of doses of the Pfizer vaccine for worldwide distribution is certainly an important step in the fight against COVID-19, but more action is needed to stop new variants from forming. Democrats on the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), must take the lead.
In mid-June, vaccination rates soared, cases fell and Americans were given a tantalizing taste of a post-pandemic life. It was, of course, tragically short-lived thanks to the delta variant. The new mutation spread faster than we thought possible thanks to deadly anti-vaccine misinformation, relaxed safety measures and premature victory laps from reckless lawmakers like Govs. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.) and Greg Abbott (R-Texas).
Due to this inaction, more than 1,000 Americans are still dying each day, and our children are being hospitalized because of COVID-19 at record rates. Racial and income disparities persist, as well. The delta variant harms everyone, but no one more than poor and marginalized communities.
Delta has laid bare what health experts have warned about for months: A global pandemic requires a global response, one only Congress can initiate, contain and ultimately eradicate the virus. No matter what measures we take at home, a lack of vaccines in low-income nations will always allow deadly new variants to form, cross the seas, and ravage our own shores, businesses and families.
There is a scarcity of vaccinations abroad, concentrated in low- and middle-income countries. More than half of all U.S. adults over the age of 18 are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, yet in South America and Asia, that figure is barely a third. In Africa — home to 1.3 billion people — less than 6 percent of adults are even partially vaccinated.
What’s worse, this scarcity is largely an artificial one, borne out of bureaucratic red tape, outside corporate interests, and a lack of urgency by countries blessed with an abundance. It is true that President Biden has promised to donate hundreds of millions of U.S. vaccine doses, a commendable and important step — and yet, that amount represents just a fraction of the global need.
Fortunately, the U.S. doesn’t have to give up more of its own vaccines to help the world. That’s where Murray and the HELP Committee come in. All it would take to ramp up production and distribution of the 8 billion global vaccines that experts say we need is $34 billion, a drop in the bucket compared to what we’ve already spent fighting the pandemic.
Failure to address the global spread of COVID-19 variants in this manner wouldn’t be just an economic or public health failure, but a moral failure as well. Communities of all faiths are implored by our Scriptures and our traditions to care for the sick and vulnerable, to love thy neighbor, and to honor and respect all of God’s creations.
As Christians in particular, we follow a healing savior who spent his life dwelling with the poor, who never turned his back on any disease, and who commanded us to love us as he loved. From Pope Francis to Franklin Graham, religious leaders of almost every tradition have spoken in support of vaccines.
Yet there is only one Jesus. The rest of us can’t heal the sick or prevent diseases by simply blowing the wind of God on the virus and declaring it destroyed. What we can do is call on the HELP Committee to include $34 billion in funding in the budget reconciliation bill to significantly accelerate the production of COVID-19 vaccines for global distribution.
Members of Faithful America, the grassroots Christian organization I work for, are doing just that, sending more than 8,000 messages to committee members and Biden urging adoption of this life-saving measure.
Faithful America’s ask echoes similar messages from Partners in Health, Oxfam, Public Citizen, and dozens of prominent public-health school deans and professors. It is an urgent request based on science, but also one rooted in the healing ministry of Jesus Christ and his teachings of love and the common good.
The Rev. Nathan Empsall is executive director of Faithful America, as well as an Episcopal priest. He holds a Master of Environmental Management and a Master of Divinity from Yale University.
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