Vaccine inequities

The Church Here and There

February 24, 2021 | Opinion | Volume 25 Issue 5
Arli Klassen | Columnist
(Image by Jeyaratnam Caniceus/Pixabay)

I struggle often with my relative wealth and privilege. Working with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) for 20-plus years helped give me something “to do” to address inequities in our world. Working with Mennonite World Conference (MWC) makes me even more aware of the inequities of wealth and privilege, and how we might respond as the church. 

Like many others, I am upset about coronavirus vaccines—vaccine wars, vaccine diplomacy, vaccine inequity. Canada committed to sharing its surplus vaccines around the world, and Canada contributed substantially to the Covax initiative. And yet, Canada has pre-purchased (“booked”) more than five times the number of vaccine doses needed for everyone in this country. Canada is trying to take good care of its own, and it then will be generous after we Canadians are taken care of first. 

Right now, in early February, 16 percent of the world’s population has booked more than 60 percent of the vaccines being developed in 2021, according to the UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines. It will take years before there is sufficient vaccination in many parts of the world to bring safety to all. I anticipate that the result will be closed borders, for years to come, to people from countries with inadequate access to vaccines.

Then there are the ethical dilemmas about appropriate vaccine distribution within our country, within our provinces, within our communities. Canada is a country that likes orderly lineups and likes clarity about who is first by need rather than by power. But it is hard.

These dilemmas become very personal for me. I am an “essential caregiver” (Ontario’s label) for my parents in an assisted-living facility. That puts me in Phase 1 to receive the vaccine, likely within the next month. That means I am nearly first in line when looking at this from a global perspective. I will accept the vaccine when it is offered to me, but with tears of sadness.

I will likely be the first to be vaccinated of the 12 MWC regional reps with whom I work, who live in 12 very different countries. I know they are generous people who will be glad for me. But how long will it take for all 12 of them to access quality vaccines? How can we plan to be together in person in 2022 if not all of them have access to the vaccines by then? 

Mennonite Church Canada members generously supported MWC’s COVID Fund in 2020. That was one way to “do something” from a health and economic perspective about the inequitable impacts of COVID-19 around the world. MCC continues to support similar projects. But how do we, as the church, respond to the inequities about vaccine distribution? No COVID-19 fund will help with that.

For me, every time I am in a conversation with other Canadians who are impatient about vaccine availability, I name these global inequities. Whether you get the vaccine in February, June or September, we must not forget our privilege, even as we worry about our own safety and equities within our own communities.

I listen to stories from people from other countries, and I pray for mercy for what is happening in those countries, particularly for the churches.  

I let my federal Member of Parliament know about my concerns for how Canada is protecting itself first before sharing with others.

I remember that churches have other gifts that may also be inequitably distributed. Valuable gifts may be shared by churches who experience community, generosity, discipleship, joy and peacebuilding from places of marginalization. 

Church here and there is about sharing gifts in suffering and in joy.

Arli Klassen lives in Kitchener, Ont., and serves as the coordinator of regional representatives for MWC.

—Corrected March 4, 2021

Read more The Church Here and There columns:
Year of wonders
Going to church
‘You must be a Mennonite!’
‘A little mercy now’

(Image by Jeyaratnam Caniceus/Pixabay)

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