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Failure to share COVID-19 vaccines with Global South “racism”: Top UN official

United Nations Under-Secretary-General Winnie Byanyima on Wednesday said denying life-saving COVID-19 vaccines to people of colour is a form of “policy violence” amounting to racism.

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United Nations Under-Secretary-General Winnie Byanyima on Wednesday said denying life-saving COVID-19 vaccines to people of colour is a form of “policy violence” amounting to racism. Speaking at a session during the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2022 here, she said “policy violence” such as the refusal to share COVID-19 vaccines with the Global South is as racist as the police violence that ended the life of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis two years ago.

“Racism is not only when black people or brown people cannot breathe because of police violence. Racism is when black people, brown people, people of colour take their last breath because of policy violence, when they are denied life-saving, pandemic-ending medicines… when they can’t access care or education because debt is choking them. That’s racism,” she said.

Byanyima, who is also Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), was speaking at a session on racial equity. Nearly 18 months after the first COVID-19 vaccines became available, 75 per cent of people in high-income countries, mainly white, are fully vaccinated, while just 13 per cent of people in low-income countries, mostly brown and black, are vaccinated, she said. “Wouldn’t you call that racism?” she asked.

Byanyima pointed the finger at the companies and governments that had invested in the vaccines and drew a parallel with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when antiretroviral treatments made available in the United States allowed those with the disease to live long and happy lives. Yet for 10 years, countries in the Global South demanded the producers of these treatments to lower their prices, while “12 million people died unnecessarily”, she said.

In the same panel, Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, highlighted the failure of leading companies to deliver on pledges made at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“As of January this year, by some measures, only 1 per cent of the USD 67 billion pledged toward racial equity by the largest companies in the world has been dispersed,” she said.She added that “only 22 Fortune 500 companies fully cover race and ethnicity in their ESG (environmental, social and governance) reporting”, while over 48,000 posts for directors and vice-presidents of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in US companies remain open.

Pam Chan, Chief Investment Officer and Global Head of the Alternative Solutions Group within BlackRock Alternative Investors, said her company had signed up to a third-party racial equity audit of her firm to identify areas where they could do better. “It’s not until you actually look at that stuff that’s kinda ugly that you can fix it,” she said. Chan outlined how the company has made the creation of an inclusive culture part of its performance reviews and compensation processes.

Alex Liu, Managing Partner and Chairman of Kearney, identified middle management as the problem. “This is about power, who holds it, who’s in the room, who’s deciding on promotion decisions, who’s funding it.” The leaders of companies can frame commitments and pledges, he said, but “the problem is the middle of the company, that’s where the power is.”

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