‘Vaccine equity needs to be engineered and planned for. There is an urgency to do this now’

NL Today

  • Read Time 6 min.

Jagan Chapagain is the Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), with extensive experience and a broad knowledge of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Chapagain has spent more than 25 years with IFRC, working across Europe and Asia. Prior to becoming Secretary General, he was Under Secretary General for Programmes and Operations, Chief of Staff and Director of the Asia Pacific region where he provided leadership in responding to large-scale humanitarian crises and in building resilient communities in partnership with National Red Cross, Red Crescent Societies and external partners across the region. Nepal Live Today spoke to him about the current Covid crisis and the role IFRC played in securing vaccine support for Nepal.

You have been championing for vaccine equity to solve the public health emergency created by the Covid-19. Where do you think we are now?  

It is very heartening to see all the work and commitments around COVAX and the G7 countries’ pledges to donate more vaccines to poorer nations. However, the lack of equity in the current rollout of Covid-19 vaccines remains alarming. The poorest 50 countries in the world account for only two percent of doses administered globally, despite being home to 17 percent of the world’s population.

Current indications are that we need 60 to 70 percent of people to be vaccinated to achieve sufficient immunity—both within countries and globally—but we are far from reaching that target.    

Vaccinations must cover all parts of society. If we have pockets of people who do not receive a vaccine, we will continue to see outbreaks. Vaccine equity will not just happen. It needs to be engineered and planned for and there is an urgency to do this now.  

We encourage States to consider all possible measures to boost production, distribution, and equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines both between countries and within countries so that no one is left behind.  

 How do you see the G7 leaders’ decision in this regard? Are we moving in the right direction?   

We welcome the G7 leaders’ decision to donate nearly a billion doses of vaccines by the next G7 in 2022.  This is a step in the right direction but still represents less than 10 percent of the need as identified by WHO.  We hope that there will be action on proposals to relax intellectual property barriers and to massively scale up knowledge transfer to break the current manufacturing logjam. 

 But ending the pandemic is not just about delivering more vaccines at a faster rate, it is also about ensuring countries have the infrastructure and human resources to get the vaccines into the arms of people with their full acceptance.  We are already seeing examples where a lack of investment at the recipient country level, combined with late provision of doses, has led to vaccines expiring before they could reach the vulnerable people.  There is a lot to be done in community mobilization, otherwise vaccine hesitancy can undermine any campaign. 

 In countries that are receiving vaccine doses, we already see that the most vulnerable, including migrants, and marginalized or ethnic minority communities, do not have equal or easy access to vaccination. 

 Equitable vaccination is a moral imperative, and we must come together in our shared humanity to ensure that everyone gets a vaccine, and that high risk and vulnerable people are prioritized everywhere. No one should be left behind. The Red Cross Red Crescent is working hard to reach the last mile and ensure that no one is forgotten.    

While countries in Africa and Asia are desperately looking for Covid vaccines, the new wave of Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on countries like India and Nepal. How is IFRC helping these countries? 

The top priority is saving lives and enabling people most at risk to have access to adequate health care and vaccines as India and Nepal have been suffering record death rates.  

Infection rates may have stabilized or reduced in some areas, yet hospitals remain overloaded, which is why the IFRC has been playing a critical role working with the Red Cross and health authorities in both India and Nepal to get lifesaving oxygen equipment and other medical supplies to where they are needed the most. 

In addition, the IFRC has been working with the National Societies to increase access to vaccination when available. Nearly 4000 volunteers have been mobilized at community levels to generate public awareness about vaccines and support the government in the vaccination sites.  

Ending the pandemic is not just about delivering more vaccines at a faster rate, it is also about ensuring countries have the infrastructure and human resources to get the vaccines into the arms of people with their full acceptance.

 This pandemic is far from over. So we need to increase global efforts to share vaccines, the ingredients, and technologies so that we can protect the most vulnerable and prevent tens of thousands of deaths in future waves of Covid-19. 

 At a personal level, how do you find yourself heading an organization like the IFRC as the entire world is combating the Covid-19 pandemic?   

I took helm of IFRC as Secretary General at the onset of the pandemic in February, 2020. Looking back at the past 18 months, I feel very privileged to serve this network.  

The pandemic has been a true global test on how local responders act in the absence of extensive international deployments. 

As auxiliaries to their governments in humanitarian action, our member Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies have been responding to Covid-19 in their own communities, across countries through their local branches and millions of dedicated volunteers and professional staff.  

Our own operations were also deeply affected and put to the test. Our staff and volunteers had to adapt to new ways of working—from home, virtually and distanced from one another. Some paid the highest price with their lives. Many lost family members and friends while often working in the face of fear and stigma. 

We have had to adapt our ways of working very quickly to ensure that we could support the most vulnerable communities with supplies and services. This forced us to be more efficient, focus on building trust and strengthen our accountability to the communities we serve and the partners who support us. I feel an immense responsibility to ensure that we come out of this crisis as a united front, unfragmented, strengthened by our successes and even by our mistakes.  

Voluntarism has been the cornerstone of the Red Cross Movement. How do you see the future of voluntarism in the days to come? 

 I started out as a Nepal Red Cross volunteer 30 years ago and know first-hand how enriching and rewarding it is to dedicate time and effort to help others. Activism, humanitarianism, and participation have evolved tremendously in the last two decades. 

The rapid advance of technology has brought new ways of self-organizing to a wider section of society, including crisis-affected communities and global volunteer networks.  There has been a significant change in the way people and communities are self-organizing and self-mobilizing. Today 70 percent of volunteering happens outside formal organizations. Volunteers long for a much quicker, flatter and more direct path to achieving impact. 

IFRC’s Strategy 2030, which guides our work and priorities for the next decade, will focus on reimagining volunteering. Our aim is to inspire a true movement of people passionate about positive change.  

We recognize the power of people to drive their own change and action. Therefore, we are focusing on connecting with self-organizing groups and individuals and other actors to support those already mobilizing to address our common goals.  

Equitable vaccination is a moral imperative. We must come together to ensure that everyone gets a vaccine, and that high risk and vulnerable people are prioritized everywhere.

Volunteers today have direct access to other volunteers all over the world, which not only builds a sense of unity, common purpose and pride in the work of the organization, but also enables joint learning, effort and impact. To capitalize on this opportunity, we are exploring creative ways, beyond social media, to connect volunteers across countries, regions and the world, expanding national volunteer models to include a distributed network of volunteers across borders, focused on co-creating and driving impact together.  

A diverse and substantial volunteer base ensures that the Red Cross and Red Crescent remain rooted in the communities we support and that we are informed, guided, enabled, and led by them.  

Nepal is facing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis now due to the Covid-19. As a former office-bearer of the Nepal Red Cross Society, how would you draw the attention of the world community to support Nepal to combat the pandemic? 

The efforts of Nepal Red Cross volunteers are awe-inspiring but much more support is needed from around the world in the coming weeks and months as Nepal continues to be overwhelmed by this terrible crisis.  

 Every day and night, Nepal Red Cross has 240 ambulance crews of medics and volunteers saving lives and playing a vital role as hospitals and limited health services remain overstretched across the country. More than 988 volunteers are providing support at around 353 vaccination centers in every corner of the country, from Kathmandu to remote mountain valleys.  

Increased access to vaccines may contribute significantly to combating Covid-19 and reducing the impacts. The IFRC is seeking vital funding for its Covid-19 Appeal to help Nepal. 

 Supported by the IFRC, Nepal Red Cross teams are playing a critical role in several districts across the country that border India, with prevention efforts, installing water and sanitation facilities such as hand-washing stations and toilets, and helping to manage quarantine centers.  

 Vaccinations have been disrupted due to inadequate supplies and we urgently need more generosity from richer countries to help Nepal with enough vaccines to protect its entire population as only 2.3 percent of population have been fully vaccinated as of 13 June 2021.  

 In view of the ongoing Covid -19 response operation and possible third wave in the coming months, there is a need to intensify its interventions further and step-up preparedness measures. Increased access to vaccines may contribute significantly to combating Covid-19 and reducing the impacts. The IFRC is seeking vital funding for its Covid-19 Appeal to help Nepal.