Pope Francis calls for COVID vaccines to reach world's poorest in Christmas address

Pope Francis calls for COVID vaccines to reach world's poorest in Christmas address
Image via Shutterstock.

Amid reports of rising Covid-19 cases in parts of the Global South, Pope Francis on Saturday marked Christmas Day by repeating a call for vaccines to reach poor countries and noted that nearly two years after the coronavirus crisis was declared a global pandemic, the public health emergency has taken international attention from other crises affecting some of the world's poorest people.

"Grant health to the infirm and inspire all men and women of good will to seek the best ways possible to overcome the current health crisis and its effects," the pope prayed in St. Peter's Square in The Vatican, addressing thousands fewer people than the square normally holds on Christmas, amid Italy's current Covid-19 outbreak. "Open hearts to ensure that necessary medical care—and vaccines in particular—are provided to those peoples who need them most."

Italy reported more than 50,000 new cases in a single day this week for the first time as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads across Europe.

Countries in the Global South which have reported rising case numbers in the past several weeks include Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Bolivia. After announcing to the world late last month that scientists had detected the Omicron variant, South Africa experienced a surge in cases and hospitalizations that this week appeared to be subsiding.

Public health experts warn that new variants will continue cropping up, endangering the whole world, if poor countries remain unable to vaccinate their populations.

With the Global South relying on vaccine donations from wealthy countries and pharmaceutical companies because the patents for the most effective vaccines remain under lock and key due to intellectual property rules that have not yet been waived, Africa has the slowest rate of vaccination of any continent. Fewer than 14% of people in Africa have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Nearly three-quarters of shots have been administered in wealthy countries, while fewer than 1% have been distributed in the Global South.

Pope Francis prayed that "through dialogue, mutual respect, and recognition of the rights and cultural values of every human being, the values of solidarity, reconciliation, and peaceful coexistence may prevail in the hearts of the peoples of the Americas."

South African and Indian officials last year proposed a waiver of the World Trade Organization's (WTO) Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), but the European Union, the U.K., and other wealthy countries continue to oppose lifting the intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.

The U.S. has now given booster shots of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to more than 62 million people, an effort which the World Health Organization said this week could actually "prolong the pandemic" as billions of people around the world remain without protection.

With poor countries unlikely to receive enough vaccine supplies to inoculate their populations widely until 2023, Pope Francis said the continuing pandemic is turning the world's attention away from violent conflicts in Syria and Yemen and the economic crisis in Lebanon, which has left more than three-quarters of the country living in poverty.

The pandemic risks marginalizing "the poorest, the weakest, the most fragile" people on Earth "even more," the pope said Christnas Eve on social media.

"Immense tragedies are now being passed over in silence," he added Saturday.

Pope Francis asked on behalf of the global population and world leaders "for the strength to be open to dialogue" in order to speed up efforts to increase global vaccination rates and end the pandemic and to end conflicts around the world.

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