From Pope Francis to Franklin Graham, leaders of almost every faith tradition have spoken in support of taking the safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines as a way to love and protect our neighbors. In Spokane, we have another religious reminder of what it took to face down a previous pandemic.
One of the city’s crown jewels is the Jesuit school Gonzaga University, which is named for St. Aloysius Gonzaga of Italy.
Like Jesus himself, St. Aloysius was a champion for the poor and the sick. When a plague broke out in Rome in 1591, he never denied the reality or the dangers of the sickness that threatened his community. Instead, he gave his own life to love his neighbor, putting aside his personal freedoms to carry plague victims from the streets into the hospitals where he would wash, feed and pray for them.
He was only 23.
Spokane’s beloved university is not the only school named for St. Aloysius Gonzaga. A prominent high school in Washington, D.C., also bears the moniker. I wonder if Sen. Patty Murray reflects on the saint’s selfless pandemic story when she visits Spokane? I wonder if other members of the Senate health committee she chairs think about it when they drive by that other Washington’s Gonzaga?
More than 400 years later, we find ourselves fighting another pandemic. And as the delta variant kills more than 2,000 Americans each day and hospitalizes our children at record rates, the message that public health experts have been warning us all along has become abundantly clear: A global pandemic requires a global response. That’s where Sen. Murray and her Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) come in.
No matter what measures we take at home, a lack of available vaccines in low-income nations will always allow deadly new variants to cross the seas and ravage our own shores, businesses and families. Sen. Murray’s committee can fill this desperate need with $34 billion in the next budget bill for the production and global distribution of 8 billion safe and effective mRNA vaccines, the number experts say we need.
“Without urgent and immediate scale up of vaccine production and distribution, millions more will be infected and die,” a coalition of more than 175 leading scientists, public-health pioneers and civil-society leaders wrote to President Biden in August. “The time is now for ambitious leadership to vaccinate the world.”
The scarcity of vaccinations beyond our shores is critical, especially in low- and middle-income countries. More than half of all U.S. adults are fully vaccinated against COVID, yet in South America and Asia, that figure is less than 40%. In Africa – home to 1.3 billion people – it’s not even 5%.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The lack of vaccines is a tragically artificial one, borne out of bureaucratic red tape, outside corporate interests, and a lack of urgency by wealthier nations. “People are really frantic right now,” Gregg Gonsalves, co-director of Yale’s Global Health Justice Partnership, told the Washington Post in August. “No one seems to have gotten the message that the world is burning – and the status quo is unacceptable.”
Fortunately, the Biden administration has since announced plans to purchase millions of doses of the Pfizer vaccine for global distribution, an important step. Unfortunately, that number still addresses only a 10th of the need. Much more is needed to help the global poor – and to protect Americans from the creation of more variants like delta.
Christians, such as myself and Sen. Murray, follow a healing savior and attend schools named for saints who spent their lives dwelling with the poor, healing the sick and teaching us to love as they loved. That’s why grassroots members of Faithful America, the Christian organization I work for, have sent thousands of letters and calls urging President Biden, Sen. Murray and the Senate HELP Committee to act for global vaccines now.
While $34 billion might sound like a big number, it’s ultimately just a drop in the bucket compared with what the U.S. has already spent on COVID-19, and its impact would be far beyond anything we’ve accomplished so far. This is our chance not just to defeat the virus here at home – using our liberties and freedom to love one another in our darkest hour – but also to restore America’s moral leadership abroad.
Faithful America’s ask of Sen. Murray and the president echoes the call of Partners in Health, OxFam, Public Citizen and dozens of prominent public-health professors.
It is an urgent request based in science, but also one rooted in the healing ministry of Jesus Christ, the inspiring example of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and the Gospel’s teachings of love and the common good.
The Rev. Nathan Empsall is executive director of Faithful America. He was ordained an Episcopal priest at Spokane’s Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, and is a former Idaho and Our Generation correspondent for The Spokesman-Review.
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