getting vaccines into arms

To help end this pandemic, let’s pull up a Jewish seat at the global table

In Short

For the vast majority of people in the world’s poorest countries – including health workers, those who are immunosuppressed, and the elderly – COVID-19 vaccines are literally out of arm’s reach.

Since the beginning of January, my family has been in and out of quarantine a whopping nine times. With the Omicron rampant and kids too young to be vaccinated, our life in Israel has been a revolving door of COVID exposures, tests and preschool closures.  

While I’ve been hard-pressed to feel grateful throughout much of this, deep down, I know we’re among the lucky ones. Thanks to my two COVID vaccines plus booster, I no longer fear the worst if I fall ill. This week, my husband and I will breathe a sigh of relief as we celebrate my eldest’s 5th birthday with a jab in his arm. His vaccines, like ours, will be free of charge and readily accessible, despite the fact that he’s not particularly high-risk.

In Israel, 74% of the population have received at least one COVID vaccine dose; in the United States the figures are roughly the same. In stark contrast, less than 10% of people in low-income countries are vaccinated. If you fly just two hours from Florida to Haiti, you’ll find a country where only about 1% of the population have received a single dose. In Burundi, one of the world’s poorest countries, the count is a shocking 0.1%.

For the vast majority of people in the world’s poorest countries – including health workers, those who are immunosuppressed, and the elderly – COVID-19 vaccines are literally out of arm’s reach. In our interconnected world, this should concern all of us. As long as the virus has a way to spread, we endanger precious lives and risk even deadlier variants that can travel across the globe.

If we fail to act to ensure that the world’s most vulnerable can access life-saving vaccines, we ignore at least three core Jewish values: b’tzelem Elohim, the belief that each person has infinite worth; hakarat hatov, the importance of expressing thanks for blessings we have received; and v’nishmartem l’nafshoteichem, the responsibility to maintain our own health and well-being.

In my work at OLAM, a network of 60+ organizations in the fields of global service, international development and humanitarian aid, I have seen amazing initiatives coming out of Israel and the Jewish community that live these values by supporting global vaccine distribution and equity.

In southern Africa, Israeli humanitarian NGO IsraAID sent a delegation of public health specialists to help design and implement Eswatini’s COVID vaccination program. In India, Gabriel Project Mumbai is working with local health authorities to provide COVID-19 vaccines and testing to the rural villages it serves year-round. American Jewish World Service is working closely with its partners in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean to prioritize vaccine access for marginalized communities, and to lobby the U.S. government to do more to foster global vaccine equity.

These Jewish and Israeli organizations should make us proud and deserve our support. They are fulfilling the Talmudic dictum of “whoever saves one life, saves an entire world.” But we Jews are less than 0.2% of the total world population. No matter how sacred and valiant, our own efforts at global vaccine distribution are just a fraction of what’s needed to accomplish the herculean task of bringing an end to the pandemic.

In order to make an impact at scale, the Jewish community must join forces with large, multisector, global efforts tackling this issue. Only by combining our resources with governments, businesses, multilateral organizations, faith communities, nonprofits and private philanthropists can we truly make a difference. As Jews, we may not be able to complete the work, but neither are we free to avoid it.  

That’s why OLAM is calling upon Jewish communities to support the End the Pandemic campaign to distribute 4.1 billion vaccine doses in 2022 to the world’s most vulnerable people.  

End the Pandemic supports UNICEF’s work overseeing the procurement, storage, and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to high-risk people in the poorest countries. As the world’s largest provider of childhood vaccines, UNICEF has been entrusted with this mission by global health organizations because it has the infrastructure, experience and expertise to successfully carry it out.

At OLAM, we have spent much of the past year learning about the work of UNICEF and its COVAX partners, such as the World Health Organization and the Gavi Vaccine Alliance. Ultimately, we decided to back this campaign because it supports the lead organization getting vaccines into people’s arms, and because 100% of the funds raised are designated for global vaccine distribution. In doing so, we stand on the shoulders of giants, such as the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, who mobilized the British Jewish community in support of UNICEF’s global vaccine efforts last year.  

Supporting this initiative also ensures a Jewish seat around a global table. This process has been an opportunity for us to build bridges and have open, and sometimes difficult, conversations with entities that have had complicated relationships with the Jewish community in the past. Although our partnership is focused on global vaccines, we are hopeful that our mutual investment in relationship-building will have long-term dividends.  

The world recently reached the milestone of administering 10 billion vaccine doses, an astonishing feat few thought possible just one year ago. My own family of four has been privileged to receive six of those doses – soon to be eight. Now is the time for all of us who have benefited from such largesse to remember the more than one-third of the world’s people who are awaiting a first dose. Let us join this global effort and act – for their sake, as well as ours.        

Dyonna Ginsburg is the CEO of OLAM