COVID-19 is an opportunity to “usher in a new model of development” that better serves communities globally, said the Rev. Charles Chilufya, coordinator of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission’s Task Force Africa and director of the Justice and Ecology Office at the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar.
“We have a chance to help the world to make a brighter, better future,” Chilufya said, adding that this should include equitable access to medicines, as well as economies and governance systems that support people rather than harming them. “We’re living in an economy that excludes the poor. Inequality is increasing, and this is a crisis,” he said.
“Pope Francis would like to look at [the pandemic] as an opportunity to prepare the future by building a more healthy and just world,” Chilufya said, adding that this involves taking an integrated approach to all preexisting global crises and not dealing with each separately. “The health crisis, financial crisis, and ecological crisis are all interconnected. We need to look at all these relationships and see how to integrate responses.”
This is something the Vatican COVID-19 Commission — created last year at the request of the pope — is looking at as part of its remit.
Speaking to Devex, Chilufya explained how the role of faith leaders has changed amid the pandemic, how the commission is contributing to relief efforts, and how faith leaders are tackling vaccine inequity.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In March 2020, at the request of Pope Francis, the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development created the Vatican COVID-19 Commission specifically for COVID-19. Designed to “express the Church’s solicitude” at the effects of pandemic, it also aims to think about how the socioeconomic-cultural aspects could be improved as part of building back.
The commission consists of five working groups, which focus on listening and responding to local leadership, co-creating integral creative solutions, shining a light on good works, supporting diplomacy and global relations, and building a pipeline of resources.
What role do faith leaders have in addressing COVID-19 and its aftermath?
Faith leaders have tremendous influence and infrastructure to reach people in all corners of the world. They also play a very important role in times of crisis, like now. They provide help and relief, and also on a psychological and spiritual level they provide encouragement and give hope in times of hopelessness. That's important for a nation and communities.
Faith has a unique place in our lives, particularly relating to how we treat each other. In times of anxiety and need, faith mobilizes and drives people to help others. It can be a very significant source of comfort and help build community resilience. In the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impact on communities and nations across the globe, religious leaders and FBOs [faith-based organizations] play — and continue to play — a role in saving lives and getting rid of the disease.
What is the role of the Vatican COVID-19 Commission?
The Vatican COVID-19 Commission was established by Pope Francis in March last year as part of a rapid response to the pandemic. One thing the pope and church are stressing is the need to listen to those who are suffering and to help them.
The commission has been mobilizing resources to respond directly on the ground to those who are suffering. It also seeks to help the global community establish economic, political, and governance structures that help promote health, justice, and prosperity for all.
No single group can address crises alone. The church, governments, the private sector, ordinary men and women must come together in partnership and look at the crises we are facing and respond together, because each group and individual has something unique to contribute.
The commission is putting a focus on vaccine equity, food justice, finding jobs, dignified labor, because this is what’s needed immediately. But it's not just about bringing food relief; it's about healing systems of production, making them equitable so that everybody is able to access and produce.
The other issue the commission is looking at is the current problem of sovereign debt and how it is affecting poorer regions, especially Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
As new vaccines are approved, how is the commission supporting vaccine equity?
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At the moment, the commission is doing everything possible to ensure that everyone has access to vaccines and to stop vaccine inequity.
The commission has recently produced a vaccine resource kit for church leaders and local parishes that provides clinical information about COVID-19 vaccines, a family guide that affirms vaccination as an act of solidarity and loving our neighbor, and a variety of resources, including quotes from Pope Francis to clarify the church’s teachings regarding COVID-19 vaccines. It is being produced in multiple languages so that we can get accurate information out to people who need it.
In terms of vaccine equity, time is of the essence, and the COVAX [global COVID-19 vaccine] initiative is an important step and a good start. But taking a longer view, we have a situation that needs to be redressed.
Current trade-related intellectual property rights give rights for [pharmaceutical companies] to hold onto their products and produce them in whatever amount wherever they like and sell them at the price they want. But we don't have enough vaccines. So we are working to support the production of safe and affordable vaccines anywhere in larger amounts so that manufacturers all over the world, including in our region, can increase access to vaccines.
The argument given is that there's no capacity [in Africa], but it's not totally true because we already have countries, though few, where other vaccines are being produced. Once the [patent] is given, production center infrastructure could be remodeled to produce the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Vatican COVID-19 Commission is working to call attention to radical individualism — which is, in itself, a virus that needs to be cured — and to promote care and cooperation for a just world where all have access to medicines, in line with the [Universal Declaration of Human Rights]. ... For this to happen, we need a proper system that favors transparency and cooperation rather than antagonism and competition.
Do you think COVID-19 has changed the role faith leaders can play in a crisis?
It has taught us to listen more, to be closer to those who are suffering. And it has also reminded us that faith leaders play an important role — especially in Africa — with regard to communicating the right messages but also in raising their voices in calling for more justice, more healing of economic systems and government assistance.
I have never seen so much cooperation: faith leaders working with non-faith-based organizations, experts, people on the ground, communities, etc. It is a partnership to try to drive humanity forward and to ensure that together we build a more just and healthier world.
Devex, with support from our partner GHR Foundation, is exploring the intersection between faith and development. Visit the Focus on: Faith and Development page for more. Disclaimer: The views in this article do not necessarily represent the views of GHR Foundation.