Covid-19: What leaders say during a pandemic matters

It is heartwarming to witness the world solidarity that so quickly led to the establishment of the Covax global vaccine-sharing facility that has allocated at least 330 million doses of Covid-19 vaccine to lower-income countries.

It is even more heartening that Covax aims to deliver these in the first half of 2021.

Even as the news broke that some approved vaccines may not be as effective against different variants as was previously hoped, the scientific and medical community remain convinced vaccination will be the best possible defence against the coronavirus pandemic.

The Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) facility is an excellent example of global solidarity, of what humanity can do when we stand together. Only five of the 195 countries in the world have not signed up to Covax, which is aimed at ensuring equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for all countries, irrespective of economic power.

The Covax facility stands in distinct contrast to the vaccine nationalism that mars much of the communication emanating from some world leaders during this devastating pandemic.

Despite their participation in Covax, some national leaders have stooped to fearmongering and name-calling, speaking of “the China virus” “the Brazilian virus” and “the SA variant”, and painting some variants of the virus that causes Covid-19 as more dangerous than others when scientific evidence does not back this claim.

It is true that different variants of the coronavirus have been genetically sequenced by scientists in some countries, and that many more will be uncovered over time. However, it is important that when we speak of the variants, we do not use terms that fuel division or xenophobia.

Speaking in a way that exacerbates the fear and uncertainty that already characterise this time in human history will not help us overcome the global challenge that is Covid-19.
Scientists predict more pandemics after this, so the behaviour patterns we entrench now must prepare us for the challenges of tomorrow. We must not spread falsehoods. We must set aside political expediency, and we must guard against making assumptions about each other. Instead, we must draw on the kind of solidarity and goodwill that prompted us to sign up to Covax in the first place.

Clear, transparent and accurate communication is never more important than in a crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic is a crisis unlike any other for almost 100 years. It is epoch-making. History will judge us by our words and actions.

Viruses are oblivious of national borders. The only way we are going to overcome Covid-19 is if we — all of us across the world — stand together.

We must communicate openly and with an emphasis on listening to hear, not listening to reply and defending our own corner. Properly listening, and asking genuine questions help us to not make assumptions and deepen our sense of empathy.

Furthermore, all countries, and particularly developed countries, must guard against making assumptions about developing nations’ capabilities.

It is heart-warming that developing nations are taking a strong lead in aspects of the global battle against Covid-19. Millions of vaccine doses, for pharmaceutical companies from the developed and the developing world, are being manufactured by the Serum Institute of India. Our own scientific community is fully engaged.

We call on leaders to leave aside nationalistic, fear-driven responses and to demonstrate cautious optimism and empathy with all of humanity. These are some of the qualities Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has demonstrated throughout his life of activism, most notably in his fight against apartheid and in standing up for those who were living with HIV at a time when our own leaders denied them the right to antiretroviral treatment.

Many global leaders have already demonstrated cautious optimism and empathy. These are the qualities that made them sign up to Covax. They can do so again and on a daily basis.