Opinion: Why we need the conscience keepers to end this pandemic

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A teacher and community mobilizer speaks to a woman in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Photo by: Jonathan Hyams / EU / ECHO / CC BY-ND

Ending this pandemic will require the single biggest deployment of vaccines the world has ever seen. To achieve this, we will need to accelerate efforts to develop suitable COVID-19 vaccines that are safe and effective, and once approved, ensure that we are ready to produce and deliver the billions of doses needed to protect everyone. That will require governments, donors, scientists, industry, and multilaterals to work together.

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But, that won’t be enough. We cannot achieve this daunting task without another vital ally — civil society.

The role that civil society organizations play in global health has always been unique. By casting the spotlight on global issues, mobilizing the support of the public, and influencing their governments to act; by working directly with vulnerable populations and helping to implement development and health programs, they are in every sense the conscience keepers of the world. With COVID-19 we need their voice, their expertise, their influence, and their extensive global and grassroots-level presence more than ever before.

CSOs have already been pivotal in drawing attention to the need for equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines, and how important this will be in halting the spread of the coronavirus and ultimately ending the pandemic. Thanks to their support some governments are now contributing to this effort through the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator, which aims to speed up the development and global availability of diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines for COVID-19.

But once we have them the task of distributing COVID-19 vaccines to people all across the world will be daunting, and we cannot do it without CSOs. This partly because of the incredible access and reach they have, particularly to some of the toughest communities, whether they are in remote rural villages, urban slums, scenes of conflict, or refugee camps.

However, CSOs also bring something else to the table — trust. Despite the huge loss of life, the millions of livelihoods at stake and the devastation to the global economy, this pandemic has triggered a rising tide of distrust and misinformation around vaccination that is sweeping its way across large parts of the global south. This growing problem is extremely worrying, particularly in large parts of Africa where it could really hinder efforts to end the pandemic. Trust will be key to addressing this and CSOs will play a central role here because of their ability to establish trust at the grassroots level, with communities, families, and individuals.

But this is a process that can’t wait until COVID-19 vaccines become available. Already we are seeing COVID-19 causing huge disruption to immunization programs. Nearly 80 million children in 68 countries are at risk of missing out on essential vaccinations, exposing them to preventable diseases including diphtheria, measles, pneumonia, diarrhea, and polio. Outbreaks are already beginning to happen, reminding us that no one is safe unless everyone is safe. CSOs were among the first ones to shine light on this collateral damage and plead for maintaining essential health services amid COVID-19.

In Kenya, KANCO, a civil society consortium, benefiting from a reallocation of a grant from Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance is helping the country to disseminate messaging on COVID-19 and the importance of continuing routine immunization services during the pandemic. Similarly, in Madagascar the reallocation of Gavi funds allowed our local civil society partner, COMARESS, to run an awareness campaign about COVID-19 and sustained immunization in the most vulnerable areas of the country.

Keeping immunization programs going and health systems functioning in the global south will also be an essential part of the preparations needed to deliver COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines to the entire world. Because ultimately, they will form the backbone of the distribution network needed to carry out that deployment.

In a sense CSOs are the glue that holds the coronavirus response together, bringing much-needed services to communities, providing value at every level. In the global north they are there putting pressure on governments to do the right thing and work towards equitable access.  And at the grassroots and community level they are both operational and influential, in so many cases made up of volunteers and members who are themselves a part of those communities.

Yet, we must not forget that during this pandemic many CSOs themselves might be suffering. Few will have avoided the economic impact of this pandemic.

This is particularly humbling for Gavi as this week, together with its host the U.K. government, it is holding the Global Vaccine Summit, in a bid to raise $ 7.4 billion to protect 300 million more children through routine immunization and prevent 7-8 million more deaths.

Despite their own hardships, so many CSOs are working relentlessly to encourage donor governments to support Gavi. So at a time when we need them more than ever before, we need to develop seamless, trusting partnerships with CSOs so we can together walk hand-in-hand to reach our common goal: prevent, protect, and prosper.

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About the author

  • Anuradha Gupta

    Anuradha Gupta is the deputy CEO at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. Since joining Gavi in 2015, Gupta has led efforts to put equity and gender at the center of programmatic planning and to tailor support to countries within Gavi’s strategy.