“As long as poverty, injustice and gross inequality exist in our world, none of us can truly rest.”
Those are the words of my grandfather, Nelson Mandela. Today, these words can be an urgent call to action for the world to stay focused on the imperatives of social justice even at a time when our own security and that of our family and friends has been threatened by the new coronavirus.
My dear aunt, Zindzi Mandela, who died last month, tested positive for COVID-19. As her family, we still do not know the cause of her death. As Madiba’s family, we did what he would have done, making public the fact that she had tested positive for Covid-19. If my grandfather was still here, he would mourn the death of Aunt Zindzi while encouraging everyone to think of the millions of others around the world who continue to die from this disease because of their social and economic standing in the society. I imagine that he would have rallied us to fight COVID-19 everywhere, to leave no one behind.
In the beginning, COVID-19 was often touted as a great equalizer – a pathogen that knew no race, class, creed or color. But no sooner had the pandemic escalated across the world, than a clear picture emerged of how the virus exploits inequality. In the U.S. the virus has taken a disproportionate toll on communities of color. An analysis by the APM Research Lab found that deaths of Black people and indigenous people in the U.S. were more than three times higher those of Whites.
In my country, South Africa, COVID-19 has hit the poorest and most vulnerable communities the hardest, killing thousands of people in rural areas and townships alike. For far too long, we have failed to end extreme poverty that continues to predispose people to diseases and other social ills. I am passionate about fighting for social justice and for a fairer world – and these are the same issues that my grandfather fought for. Grandad would want us to think more and do more for the less fortunate, those disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in South Africa, in the U.S. and all over the world.
COVID-19 cases in South Africa have now exceeded 500,000 and the disease is gaining full speed across Africa. The world must move fast to help contain the pandemic on the continent. In the most vulnerable countries, we could see more deaths from the ripple effects of the pandemic than from COVID-19 itself. Many of us fear that we are at an inflection point – we could either lose thousands of lives from COVID-19 and from HIV, TB and malaria after losing the gains we have made over the years or we could consolidate those gains and save thousands, or even millions, of lives. A recent survey by the Global Fund shows widespread service disruptions to HIV, TB and malaria responses as a result of COVID-19. Additionally, recent studies by UNAIDS, WHO and Stop TB show deaths could as much as double in the next year from HIV, TB and malaria if we do not act decisively to stop disruptions. The UN estimates that disruptions to health systems due to COVID-19 could cause 6,000 children to die every day from preventable causes, including HIV, TB, and malaria.
To prevent thousands of avoidable deaths and stop the loss of more than a decade of progress on HIV, TB and malaria and other diseases, those with more must do more. World leaders must act decisively to stop the catastrophic consequences of COVID-19 in all vulnerable countries.
The Global Fund has already provided close to U.S. $700 million for emergency activities to respond to COVID-19, nearly exhausting the resources it has available to fight the pandemic in low- and middle-income countries. Global health leaders have called on Congress to appropriate at least U.S. $4 billion in emergency funding to the Global Fund to support these countries to contain COVID-19, prevent increased deaths from HIV, TB and malaria and protect health workers. The United States has an important opportunity to lead the world in investing more resources in countries that are likely to suffer catastrophic consequences from COVID-19, even as the U.S. fights the disease at home. I urge Congress to set aside the resources necessary for the Global Fund and other global health partners to do their job in supporting the most vulnerable countries to fight this disease and its effects.
This is a time for global leadership and global solidarity. It is a time to vow that we all can’t rest until social justice and equity in the fight against COVID-19 flows through ever city, every township and every village across the world. Just like my grandfather would have urged us to do.