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Irishman Dr. Mike Ryan has led the global response to Covid-19 through his role as Executive Director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.
On Wednesday, he received Trócaire’s Romero Award. Here are five key takeaways from his acceptance speech that you need to know.
1. Covid-19 is a wake-up call to how we live our lives
“We are pushing nature to its limit. We are pushing population to its limit. We’re pushing communities to their limits. We’re stressing the environment. We are creating the conditions in which epidemics flourish. We’re forcing and pushing people to migrate away from their homes because of climate stress.
We’re doing so much and we’re doing it in the name of globalisation and some sense of chasing that wonderful thing that people call economic growth. In my view, that’s becoming a malignancy, not growth, because what it’s doing is driving unsustainable practices in terms of how we manage communities, how we manage development, how we manage prosperity.
We are writing cheques that we cannot cash as a civilisation and they’re going to bounce. My fear is that our children are going to pay that price. That someday when we’re not here, our children will wake up in a world where there is a pandemic that has a much higher case fatality rate, and that could bring our civilisation to its very knees.
We need a world that is more sustainable, where profit is not put before communities. Where the slavery to economic growth is taken out of the equation. We need sustainable growth in our communities. We need sustainable livelihoods for our people. And we’re taking huge risks – massive risks – with our future if we don’t manage the planet in which we live. And we’re being extremely irresponsible right now.”
2. Covid-19 has highlighted the inequalities that exist in the world
“The most vulnerable populations in the world have now become even more vulnerable. Those we left behind before are now even further behind. Covid has laid bare and exploited fundamental inequities in access to public healthcare and the reality that healthcare can be used to empower or curtail the human, civil and political rights.
Healthcare can be a force of good but it can also be a weapon of oppression if you don’t have access to it or if access to that healthcare is dependent on the colour of your skin or your ethnicity or your political affiliations. Access to healthcare during Covid-19 has not been fair. It has been influenced by gender, by age, by social class, by legal status, by ethnicity and by so many other factors.”
3. We need to invest in healthcare rather than spending trillions on arms
“We are prepared to invest trillions of dollars every year of people’s money in the defence against an army that might never come across a border. And we’ve invested almost nothing in the microbes that have brought our civilisation to its knees over the last year. And I think we should think about that.
Where are we putting our money in defence – defending ourselves against foreign armies or defending ourselves against viruses?”
4. The only way to defeat this is by working together
“My heart is local. I come from a small community of 14 or 15 houses on the border of two counties. They say in Ireland that it takes a village to raise a child, well I grew up in that village. I know what community actually means. Organisations like Trócaire empower individuals and empower communities and see the power of communities.
One of my childhood memories is of the Trócaire box and what it meant to people in Ireland in terms of their way of contributing to the efforts around the world Trócaire leads. I have wonderful childhood memories of Trócaire’s work and it offering Irish communities an opportunity to contribute their compassion.
Trócaire has offered compassion and support to many of those who tend to be forgotten; marginalised, dehumanised, deprived of basic rights, an identity and the thing we cherish most in Ireland: a home and a stable community. Your efforts to support those who needed medical support, but also social and economic support and mental health support. Those who supported women and girls in the face of increased violence; those who supported people in refugee camps and slums and fragile settings such as Somalia, Myanmar and Sierra Leone. Whatever the context, whatever those needs, Trócaire, its workers and its supporters have stood and bared witness to what is good in the world.
We as individuals and as communities need to recognise that pure individualism gets us nowhere. We have to act collectively in the face of an epidemic. This is a hard thing to do. We live in an individualistic society. That sense of community is what saves you in an epidemic.”
5. We must share vaccines to protect the most vulnerable people everywhere
“The moral hazard for Ireland and Europe and everyone else across the world is once we cover those individuals who are vulnerable in our society, can we then at least begin to share with those in the world who do not have access to the vaccine. At least begin to share a small slice of the cake. It’s very hard for people who are way down that chain. People in South Sudan today, down the end of the line looking to the top of the line with developed countries fighting over who’s first and who’s second and who’s third and they know they’re never even going to get into the line.
The north doesn’t need to share all its vaccine, it needs to share some of its vaccine to ensure the most vulnerable and most at risk in the developing world have access. It’s a simple thing and I think the citizens of Ireland will want that to happen. I think the citizens of Ireland have shown over my whole lifetime their commitment to Trócaire, to Concern, to development, to equity, to justice. We’re not going to punish you in the next election because you shared a few vaccines with those who needed them.
Almost all the vaccines that have been delivered around the world are in 10 countries. It cannot be sustained. It is just not fair. If we stand by and allow frontline health workers and vulnerable people in developing countries to not be vaccinated while the rich north gets on with vaccinating perfectly healthy young people, I hope the history books write that down.
We have a choice to make.”