Our “Kairos” Moment: The G20 and the Challenge of Immunizing the World

Brett G. ScharffsBrett G. Scharffs is Rex E. Lee Chair, Professor of Law, and Director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, J. Reuben Clark Law School, Brigham Young University

This post is adapted from a presentation at the G20 Interfaith Forum held in Bologna, Italy on September 13, 2021. The Panel, “A ‘Kairos’ Moment: Accountability to Address Inequalities” was co-chaired by Stefano Fassino, a member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and Katherine Marshall, Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs, Georgetown University. The other speakers were Rajeev Bhargava, Director of the Parekh Institute of Indian Thought at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi; Arntraud Hartman, Professor of Development Economics, SAIS Europe John Hopkins University in Bologna; Eric LeCompte, Executive Director of Jubilee USA Network; and Jonatas Machado, Faculty of Law at the University of Coimbra.

I’m grateful for the framing of today’s discussion, a “Kairos” moment addressing inequalities. As Stefano Fassina explained, Kairos is a Greek term that refers to a unique and unusual opportunity. Our Kairos moment is shaped by the coronavirus crisis. And I believe it is a unique opportunity as illustrated by Professor Katherine Marshall’s framing this with the assignment she gave her students at Georgetown University. She asked them to write a letter to their grandchildren describing what they experienced and how they responded to the pandemic.

I also like framing the issue through the perspective of inequality, because as difficult as the coronavirus has been for all of us, it is also important to understand the ways it has impacted people differently. Some have had relatively mild infections, while others have gotten very sick, and others died. And we have seen this perhaps in our own places, in our circles of friends and family. In addition, it is quite clear that the economic impacts have been quite diverse. I really appreciated Professor Arntraud Hartmann’s emphasis on the economic dimensions of the impacts of COVID.

In the United States, whether we look at income, whether we look at wealth, whether we look at unemployment, whether we look at health impacts, whether we look at even rates of vaccination, it is quite clear that those who were the most vulnerable, to begin with, because they were old because they had preexisting conditions, or because they were in dangerous jobs or were economically vulnerable, generally speaking, the impacts on those who least could afford the impacts of the coronavirus crisis have been highest.

And I think it’s fair to say that most of us here at the G20 Interfaith Forum are quite privileged. I have been talking to my students about how the coronavirus has affected us as law students and professors. The primary impact has been the inconvenience of not being able to gather in person for classes, with many of our classes moved online. And this has been difficult and stressful. But it is also an incredible privilege to be able to work safely from home or study safely in a way that protects us and each other. Many people don’t have that luxury. And it’s interesting to see how jarring it is to think about the privilege of quarantine, rather than the hardship of quarantine.

As we reflect upon this Kairos moment, I have been thinking about its most immediate challenge, which is vaccinating the world. There are many dimensions to this challenge, technical, financial, logistical, and ideological. But I believe that when we look back when our grandchildren look back on this moment, this is the task against which we will be measured—did we rise to the challenge, or did we fall short? As an academic, we have a professional disposition to make things as complicated as possible. And so I am going to go against my everyday disposition as an academic and try to state this as simply and as straightforwardly as I can.

The G20 countries are the twenty largest economies on earth, together with the entire European Union.

And G20 was created, or at least established its identity, as a responder to a crisis, primarily in the 2008 economic crisis. This is what I believe to be true: if this pandemic is going to be solved, it is going to be solved as a result of the successful leadership and collective effort of the G20 countries, and they will deserve credit for solving and addressing it. If this problem is not solved, if it is not adequately addressed, then I believe it will be and should be the G20 countries that bear the lion’s share of the blame for that failure.

It is hard to imagine a crisis that was more custom-made for this forum. Globally, there are several important problems and priorities that the G20 can and should address, and there will be time and place to address them. But at this moment, this Kairos moment, we must address this public health, this world vaccination crisis. Addressing the global pandemic is a condition precedent to addressing the numerous other things that ail us. That is as simple and as straightforward as I know how to say it. If there is one thing that comes out of this G20 Interfaith Forum, I hope it is as clear a communication as we collectively are capable of mustering—that this is true, that this is a problem that it is the G20’s problem, it is the problem of this Kairos moment, and it is the responsibility of the G20 countries to address it.

The G20 Interfaith Forum’s recommendations to G20 leaders state that the priority at this moment is healing: “to heal health, social, and economic fractures stemming from the COVID-19 emergencies, and to heal the conflicts and inequities that contribute to these fractures and are accentuated by them.” It notes that religious groups and communities offer a variety of distinctive global perspectives and can contribute to the needed healing. In its list of priorities, it states first,

The COVID-19 emergencies are the priority now. G20 leaders and nations need to engage religious communities to (a) support vaccination campaigns that reach communities worldwide by the end of 2021; (b) identify especially vulnerability communities and ensure a sharp focus on them; (c) convey positive messages; and (d) address vaccine hesitancy.

The document goes on to remind G20 leaders that religious groups should be engaged at all levels in planning COVID-19 responses. The recommendations state, “G20 nations should include religious communities in aid plans, enhance partnerships, and collaborate to heal tensions around public health restrictions and fractures in social cohesion linked to the global crisis.”

So far in the world’s war with COVID-19, the coronavirus seems to be winning, As Jeneed Interlandi wrote in The New York Times on September 21, 2021, “For all its successes, the race to vaccinate the world against COVID has unfolded like a symphony without a conductor.” As explained by Interlandi,

The corralling of manufacturing sites has been haphazard. The channeling of equipment and ingredients has been messy and at times wasteful. And the flow of vaccines has been recklessly uneven: More than 80 percent of the four billion vaccine doses that had been distributed as of early August went to high- and upper-middle-income countries.

For example, the US has acquired enough vaccines to inoculate its entire population three times over, while “most low-income nations still don’t have enough to give even first doses to their frontline health workers or older citizens.” At the current pace of vaccinations, it will be many years, perhaps decades, for low-income countries to vaccinate their entire populations.

I want to add one other perspective on the coronavirus crisis because it is actually a very difficult problem to solve. For the last several years, we at the International Center for Law and Religion Studies have been spending much of our time working on what we have come to call the “human dignity initiative,” which is a perspective on human rights and a perspective on rejuvenating and renewing  human rights that focuses on what the Punta del Este Declaration described as “human dignity for everyone everywhere.” I believe as we seek to solve this crisis, this is the proper lens through which the problem should be viewed.

First of all, everyone. The challenge is to vaccinate the world, to vaccinate those from wealthy countries, from middle-income countries, and poor countries; moreover, to vaccinate those in each of these categories within each country. Everyone is important.

Everywhere is also important. When we focus on the G20 countries, who is left out? It is the other 150 or more countries that make up the nations of the world. So when we talk about the responsibility and the opportunity, the accountability, it is going to be largely the G20 countries that bear the principal accountability for solving this problem everywhere. And if the G20 countries do not take the lead in solving this problem, it is unlikely that it will be solved. Rather, we will continue to be two or three steps behind as variants and new strains of the virus continue to present themselves in new and perhaps even more formidable and deadly variants.

And human dignity. This is a primary lens through which I think this problem needs to be addressed, not only as we seek to reach everyone everywhere, but also in th way we do so. This is a problem that coercive statism is unlikely to solve successfully. When we encounter people who are leery of receiving a vaccine, we must meet them where they are, in their humanity and complexity, with their fears and distrust, some of which are legitimate. We know for example, that not all vaccines work equally well. We know that some vaccines have side effects. And if we’re going to address the problem of successfully vaccinating entire populations, it will not be effective to try to shove it down the throats of an unwilling populace. The primary means of implementation should be gentle persuasion striving to address underlying fears and concerns. And even mandates can have exceptions. We’ve learned in many and varied contexts how to accommodate conscience; we’ve learned how to accommodate fear; we’ve learned how to accommodate distrust in many other areas of endeavor. And I think we need to see to be respectful in this area as well.

This is a Kairos moment. We face a unique generational crisis. And I think all of us will be judged on how we rise to the occasion that this crisis presents. What I see is a set of twin imperatives. The first is to vaccinate the world. The second is to do it in a way that is respectful of the human dignity of all people.

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