On September 20, 2023, members of the UN General Assembly held a high-level meeting in which they discussed a variety of world issues, including pandemic prevention, preparedness, and global response. In attendance at the meeting, representing the Vatican, was Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, who offered the perspective of the Church on such important matters.
The archbishop’s statement began with a reflection on the 2020 pandemic, which he said reminded the world of the frailty of human life, as well as the dependence on and responsibility we have for our neighbors. He pointed to the guidance of Pope Francis, who has instructed that “a healthy society is one that takes care of everyone’s health.”
He then hailed the efforts of “government and spheres of society,” which exhibited good will and dedication to the world health effort to swiftly develop and distribute diagnostics and vaccines for COVID-19. While these efforts helped to stymie the progression of the disease, however, he did note that the rate at which underdeveloped countries received vaccinations is an area that needs improvement:
“Yet, it remains concerning that the percentage of people in low-income countries who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine is about half of the rate in high-income countries. Putting global solidarity into practice requires prioritizing universal access to health technologies, particularly for the most vulnerable,” Archbishop Gallagher told the UN.
He noted the disparities of access to health technologies like vaccinations and therapies due to vast differences in purchasing power between nations, as well as limited production capacity. The prelate highlighted the “deep links between poverty and poor health,” and implored world leaders to consider solutions to this disparity now, rather than try to solve them in the 11th hour, when a new pandemic arises:
“It also requires capacity building in developing countries to promote local research, innovation, production, and distribution. Beyond a ‘quick fix,’ it is necessary to ensure that an equitable response may be given in future pandemics. Considering that durable solutions often take longer to achieve, we have no time to waste.”
Archbishop Gallagher went on to caution world leaders that all responses to health emergencies must be undertaken while maintaining respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. These include “freedom of opinion, and expression, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion or belief.” He called on the World Health Organization to “facilitate coordination and cooperation,” noting that this mission requires the WHO to ceaselessly build the trust of the public:
“They must include solidarity mechanisms aimed at helping countries to provide medicines and adequate health-care to their populations, while respecting their cultural sensibility and sovereignty. Moreover, the sharing of scientific information and know-how at international level is also critical.”
In his conclusion, the archbishop prayed that a spirit of unity will drive the UN’s actions. He recognized that the world will never come out of a pandemic crisis unchanged, but that the changes should always be aimed at the betterment of the world. Once again, he turned to the words of Pope Francis:
“As Pope Francis has stated, ‘the greatest lesson we learned from Covid-19 was the realization that we all need one another [… and] that none of us can be saved alone.’”