This month, for the first time in two years, the G20 will meet in Rome to discuss a global, multilateral agenda. The stakes could not be higher.
Certainly, member states are feeling the COVID-19 pandemic’s ongoing consequences. But, sadly, the 175 countries not at the table—most in the Global South—still face the gravest suffering and highest rates of death.
Nowhere is the disparity more apparent than in vaccine access. In places like Los Angeles and New York City, where we respectively live and were vaccinated, large distribution sites like the L.A. Forum and the Javits Center have helped the two cities administer a total of 23 million doses, collectively.
Meanwhile, we’ve heard from partners and colleagues across the globe about the barriers to getting vaccinated in less wealthy parts of the world—from months of waiting to lack of internet access to clinics running out of doses. These barriers add up fast, while the number of vaccinated people rises too slowly. To date, all of South Africa, Charlize’s home country, has administered just 17 million doses. Indeed, while 17 of the G20’s member states already have vaccinated at least two-thirds of their populations, the vaccination rate across the continent of Africa is below 5%.
Many countries across the Global South suffer a damning lack of vaccine doses—and even for those who do have access, uncertainty and vaccine hesitancy in vulnerable communities have been growing, due to either a lack of information, an excess of misinformation, or both. Without strong, robust civil-society organizations working on the ground to combat misinformation and support meaningful access for those in need, progress towards a more equitable recovery will be impossible.
As global leaders, the members of the G20 have an urgent responsibility: To end the immediate crisis of vaccine inequity today and build long-term infrastructure that safeguards the world from future pandemics. First and foremost, this means supplying billions of doses to less-wealthy parts of the world. President Joe Biden’s recent commitment to double U.S. vaccine donations is a welcome step—but even the 1.1 billion doses he vows to contribute will not be enough to reach global herd immunity. Ending this global health crisis requires a more robust and holistic sharing of resources.
For instance, our current intellectual-property regime prioritizes pharmaceutical profit over public health outcomes. We recognize the power of intellectual-property protections to drive research, development, and innovation. But in the context of a pandemic like this one, those protections have deadly consequences by knee-capping the ability of resource-poor countries to manufacture life-saving vaccines. G20 members must join the more than 100 national governments and hundreds of civil-society organizations that have signed on to support a temporary waiver of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). With this waiver in place, government leaders around the world can finally build a vaccine infrastructure that empowers countries to quickly produce and distribute vaccines, in a way that’s rooted in collaboration, not competition.
Crucially, we also need to ensure we translate doses manufactured into shots in the arms of those in need. That necessitates a reimagined and strengthened health infrastructures that commits to bolstering civil society, community health workers, and community-based organizations.
Civil-society organizations have played an essential role in pandemic response—as watchdogs holding governments accountable, and as trusted partners and messengers serving vulnerable communities. From Dallas, Texas to Durban, South Africa, communities that have experienced a history of exploitation, neglect, and marginalization harbor an understandable distrust of the state. Understanding this fact is crucial, because in many places, like rural South Africa, distrust and hesitancy of the vaccines continue to rise, creating new barriers to recovery even as more doses become available.
Especially in regions marked by internal conflict, political tension, language barriers, and social unrest, even the most well-intended distribution policies will fail without strong civil-society engagement and community-led action from organizations with a well-established foundation of trust and support. We have seen time and again, in our work with frontline organizations like the Small Projects Foundation, that the messenger matters. Without robust civil-society organizations—including local newsrooms, community centers, and trusted health care providers—to disrupt dangerous COVID-19 conspiracies, vulnerable groups like women and immigrants are most likely to lack the information needed to make healthy choices. To create pipelines for a faster, more equitable response, the G20 must meaningfully invest in the work of such organizations.
Five years ago, we both joined thousands of activists in Durban to discuss another virus and global public health crisis: HIV/AIDS. There, at the 21st International AIDS Conference, we encouraged global leaders to disrupt the racism, sexism, transphobia, and homophobia that make HIV a treatable illness for some and a death sentence for others. These types of inequities and fear drive pandemics. Since then, thanks to fearless leadership from people living with HIV and civil-society champions, we’ve seen ongoing advocacy lead to an increased focus and shift of resources to vulnerable populations like youth, and tangible policy changes like the government approval and formal rollout of the life-saving HIV preventative regimen PrEP in Kenya and increased HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention funding throughout the region.
Today, we’re trying to propel similar change to fight inequity and stymie the pandemic’s devastation of the Global South. At the Ford Foundation, we are proud to launch a new $16 million grant-making initiative that will spur intellectual-property reform, fund public goods, and bolster civil-society organizations working in marginalized communities. And at the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, we’re working with longstanding partners to uproot harmful misinformation and vaccine hesitancy among adolescents and help remove barriers to vaccine access for young people, their families, and the under-resourced communities in which they live.
That said, no group has more influence than the G20 to redistribute vaccine supply, reinvest in medical and civil-society infrastructure, and reimagine our global systems with equity, justice, and collaboration at the heart. Together, we can build a more equal, more equally prepared world.
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Contributor: Charlize Theron and Darren Walker