COVID-19

Without a global response, we risk a world of tremendous inequality

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Dr. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala is chair of the GAVI board and the former finance minister of Nigeria. Danai Gurira interviewed Dr. Okonjo-Iweala as part of our #PassTheMic series.

Here’s some of what she had to say.

This pandemic has made the world wake up to interconnectedness — how we are so interconnected that people in a remote area in one country are connected to a remote area in another country.

What that says to me is that no one in the world is safe when there’s a pandemic until everyone is safe.

If one person has it in some remote area, you may be in your rich country thinking: “We’ve now got it under control. We have the health systems, we have the test cases, we have the training, and we are okay.” Then one day that person in the rural area trades with another person, who talks to another person, and very soon that person boards a flight. Then before you know it, it’s back where you are.

That to me is why we all have to act as one, because we are only as good as our weakest link.

If we do not have a global response to this pandemic, we face the risk of a world of tremendous inequality, which will come back to haunt us. 

The priorities and the risks

Our priorities now should be on health action. For me, it’s a joint interwoven priority, particularly as far as developing countries are concerned. The top priority, of course, is to save lives.

This is twofold: on the health side, but also on the humanitarian side, because there are some people who are dying of hunger. They don’t yet have the disease, but because of containment measures like lockdowns and social distancing, they’ve had to stay indoors.

In our part of the world in Africa, there are many people who work in the informal sector — over 80% in some countries. This means they earn their living on a daily basis. If you ask them to lockdown, it means they can’t eat.

So, our priorities are first, to get the equipment and put all of the measures in place to protect our health workers and ourselves from this disease. And second, to make sure that those among us who cannot eat because of the measures are given food, and that our social safety nets deliver what they should.

When you have this kind of a shock, it means that everybody has to come together to solve it.

If we do not have a global response to this pandemic, we face the risk of a world of tremendous inequality, which will come back to haunt us.

Let’s remember that some developing countries in many parts of the world were doing quite well. Take Africa: We were not doing that badly in terms of economic growth and development before we had this exogenous shock, as economists call it. That is an event that we didn’t create, but that has come. When you have this kind of a shock, it means that everybody has to come together to solve it.

Let’s imagine a scenario where people are just solving it for themselves. They have enough medical supplies, they have enough to eat, and they are leaving people in developing countries who don’t have enough to take care of everything. What happens is people die. There may be uprisings and social unrest, and it will rebound on other parts of the world.

So, I think it’s better to spend money now to solve the problem in an equitable way than to spend tons of money later to avoid the same problem.

The strength of the human spirit

I’m optimistic that this will help us change some of our habits and show us that nationalistic sentiments just doesn’t really work in the long term. 

Much as this pandemic has been very difficult, it has also shown us the power of the human spirit. Just think of all those health workers. Some of them travelling great distances to help, to make sure that they can help save lives. The generosity of people who have come forward with food to help those who don’t have enough. Some wealthy people have donated quite extensively. Those who don’t have much have shared.

We’ve seen a good working of the human spirit all over the world, and that makes me feel optimistic.

I think we will learn lessons from this that will push us as a world in a better direction. I think this interconnectedness will show people that there’s nowhere to hide.

I’m hoping sincerely that when other problems crop up, we will think as a global community about how to solve them. For example, with the coronavirus vaccine, we know that if we don’t make it accessible and affordable to everybody, we’ll have that weak link that will come back to haunt us.

I’m optimistic that this will help us change some of our habits and show us that nationalistic sentiments, wanting to do only for ourselves, just doesn’t really work in the long term.

These excerpts from the interview were edited for length and clarity.

Hear more from experts in our #PassTheMic campaign, where global health experts take over celebrities’ social media channels to share the data, facts, and science we need to know to end COVID-19. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for more.

Demand a Global Response to Coronavirus

People all over the world are standing in solidarity with each other to fight coronavirus, but the virus keeps moving fast.

The pandemic will inevitably wreak its worst on the communities and countries that are least able to withstand the shock. Let’s stand with the most vulnerable whether they live across the street or across the ocean.

We are one world and it’s time to fight for humanity against the virus. Sign our petition telling governments that a global pandemic demands a global response.


Dear World Leaders,

The world needs a Pandemic Response Plan to:

  • Protect the vulnerable, support essential workers, and make a vaccine available to everyone
  • Support people worst hit economically
  • Strengthen health systems so we’re ready if this happens again

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