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‘No One in the World Is Safe Until Everybody’s Safe.’ Why a Globally Accessible Vaccine Is Crucial to Ending the COVID-19 Pandemic

3 minute read

If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s the interconnected nature of our world. A virus that originated in Wuhan, China, has now spread to virtually every corner of the globe.

The pandemic has exposed how globalization can help a highly contagious virus take root. But there’s another side to the coin. The global community needs to harness that same interconnectedness to emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever, says Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, board chair for the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI).

“No one in the world is safe until everybody’s safe,” Okonjo-Iweala said during a a TIME 100 Talks discussion on finding hope in the midst of the pandemic. “No country is safe until every country is safe,” she says, regardless of their economic standing.

Partnership is something Okonjo-Iweala knows well. GAVI works with the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, the World Bank, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other partners to increase access to vaccines for children living in underserved nations. Since its formation in 2000, it has helped bring vaccines to more than 760 million children, according to its website.

Okonjo-Iweala, who has previously served as Nigeria’s minister for both finance and foreign affairs, emphasized that a COVID-19 vaccine, when it is ready, must be accessible to people across the world, in countries both rich and poor. Given the scale of that operation—millions of doses of a new vaccine—the pharmaceutical industry will have to think “not about profits to be made, but getting access to all of humanity.”

Part of that effort will also have to focus on reducing fears about vaccination, Okonjo-Iweala acknowledged. Anti-vaccine sentiment was rising worldwide—and threatening public health—even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but fear and uncertainty around the unknown virus is likely to give it new vitriol. To encourage widespread compliance with vaccination, Okonjo-Iweala says health groups should partner with religious, cultural and community leaders, as well as community groups, to get out the message that “when this vaccine is available, no one will allow it to be administered unless they’re sure of the safety and quality.”

Getting large swaths of the world’s population vaccinated is as much an economic concern as a health one, Okonjo-Iweala says, since the economy cannot truly recover while an infectious disease remains a major global concern. For that reason, she adds, countries should not rush to reopen before science says they’re ready.

And when they do, Okonjo-Iweala says they should take the opportunity to rebuild better than before, with an eye toward environmental sustainability, economic equality and global cooperation.

“This is not the last pandemic we’re going to have,” she says. “So we better make the world a better place now. Let’s bring everyone up so we can survive and not perish.”

This article is part of #TIME100Talks: Finding Hope, a special series featuring leaders across different fields sharing their ideas for navigating the pandemic. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com