“America’s back, baby!”: Vaccine diplomacy can put America back on the global map

~Sabith Khan, PhD

Is America’s standing in the world getting better with President Biden at the helm? Initial data seems to suggest that this hasn’t yet happened. However, not all is lost. One of the ways that this can be accelerated is through vaccine diplomacy.

As a recent media report pointed out, the commitment by the US to give away about 500 million vaccines is a significant commitment towards a humanitarian crisis. It ought to be recognized for what it is – a gesture of goodwill and a commitment to addressing the largest humanitarian crisis that we as a human race have faced in our lifetimes.

us vaccine diplomacy
source: flickr.com/photos

While the US is still a hegemon of sorts, it is facing stiff competition from China and other global powers, as they jockey to dominate the globe with their money and resources. One of the resources that has emerged as a strong contender in COVID times is the humble vaccine. 

India is still working through its second wave, which has killed hundreds of thousands – some estimate millions – of citizens. I have personally witnessed a few deaths in my own family and extended friends’ networks. This has to be the most devastating tragedy that Indians have faced collectively, perhaps since the partition of the country in 1947, when an estimated one million people were killed in the rioting that ensued.

Other parts of the world, including Latin America and Africa, are also still reeling from the effects of COVID-19 and the lack of vaccines and basic health infrastructure that are plaguing these societies. In addition to these circumstances, misinformation is rampant in many of these societies (including in the US), stopping people from getting vaccinated.

So, while “America is back” may be a good political slogan, translating that into implementable actions will be harder than one imagines. 

The alternative – one in which the US sits on the sidelines and does nothing – is not an option. That was certainly the action taken by Mr. Trump, causing devastation not just within the US, with hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths, but also massive chaos and suffering around the world. 

Delivering those millions of vaccines to countries that have dilapidated healthcare systems and steep nepotism and corruption, along with ensuring that millions get vaccinated is going to be a long and hard battle for all parties involved.

Will philanthropy by the rich save us?

Mackenzie Scott’s giving away of $4 bn made news last week, as this was one of the most generous examples of giving by an ultra-rich person, this year. It is admirable that she has given this money away, even though there are very many criticisms of this phenomenon of hi-networth giving.

Hi-networth giving by Mackenzie Scott
credits: npr.org

Her problem is pretty unique to super-rich folk: how to help others, with all the surplus wealth that one has? There have been a few proposals before us, falling broadly into two categories :

  1. Tax the rich and
  2. Allow the rich to carry out their philanthropy, as they see fit and encourage them in this direction.

The first idea of taxing the rich doesn’t seem to gain a lot of momentum in the U.S., given that political will to make this happen doesn’t seem to exist. However, a vast majority of Americans think that what they pay are fair share of taxes. Given that we have a progressive system of taxation, at the individual level, there seems to be not much of a problem for the middle class. The poor and those who are struggling to make ends meet are the ones who are most upset about the status quo.

But for the super-wealthy and entrepreneurs and those with avenues to gain tax deductions, there are enormous loopholes through which companies do not pay any taxes, even after making billions of dollars in taxes. This article talks about how little a company like Amazon pays, in taxes (for the past few years, it has paid $0 in taxes). The company has faced a lot of criticism for this reason. Various tax credits and deductions help firms such as Amazon avoid taxes.

Can billions of dollars donated by the super-rich save us? This question is as old as the industrial age (also called the Gilded age), when the newly founded millionaires (billionaires in comparison to our age) such as Andrew Carnegie, Rockefeller, and others tried to answer this question. We have our own Rockefellers and Carnegies in the form of  Mackenzie Scott, Bill Gates, and others, who have given away quite a lot of money to worthy causes.

At a time when the American economy has been battered by the pandemic, politicians, intellectuals are questioning why the current system persists, especially when we are fighting over something as basic as a $600 relief check for Americans.

The second approach of the wealthy giving away their wealth is a somewhat recent phenomenon, that has emerged in the past decade or two.

The Giving Pledge is an example of a modern version of how the super-rich have tried to rationalize their wealth and reach an agreement with themselves and others: the compact that giving one’s wealth away is one way to deal with the problem our societies have created: excessive wealth in a few hands.

Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth is one of the older documents in this regard that tried to address this specific problem.

What is the right answer to the problem of wealth transfer from the super-rich to the super-poor? That answer depends on the society that we have and how people feel about the obligations and rights that we have, as individuals towards each other, and the government’s role in regulating these obligations and rights. This ‘social contract’ may need revision, as we come out of the covid-19 pandemic, with deep questions being asked about the nature of our relationship to each other, to the state, and to our communities – far and wide.

This act may need a renewed imagination and a willingness to debate and dialogue with people with who we vehemently disagree.

COVID-19 in Asia – Lessons learned

On Monday, June 22, the Cal Lutheran School of Management hosted Dr. Rafiq Dossani from the RAND Corporation, Santa Monica on challenges and impacts on healthcare and economy, and lessons learned from COVID-19 in Asia.

Some key highlights from Dr. Dossani’s talk :

  • Regime type doesn’t matter, as much as the level of trust. The legitimacy lies in their ability to control COVID-19. In countries such as India, Pakistan, etc the level of trust in govt is low and the government reciprocates. The crisis with internal migration and lockdowns shows how this lack of trust has caused massive chaos
  • In Korea, national elections were held in the middle of a pandemic and people showed up; this was possible due to the trust
  • The government did a wise thing in the U.S by opening the taps on liquidity and there was sustainability to the economy. That has continued as payments through the PPE program are ongoing. It would be succeeded in preventing a big crash. If the US government can bring down the virus, then we have a game-changer. If the breakouts continue, then the economy may be in for a tumble
  • Sri Lanka, a small country in South Asia has managed to effectively manage the crisis. They haven’t made public their work, the public healthcare worker system is in place. The contact tracing mechanism is in place in that country, which seems to have worked well. In India, there is a similar system.

If you wish to read a few essays from the Center for Public Policy and Research based in Cochin, India, click here

Should we take down Christopher Columbus’s statues?

With the ongoing protests surrounding equality for Black and colored people, around the world; the question of monuments (including statutes) has come up, rather forcefully. Should we continue celebrating Christopher Columbus, who treated the Native Americans cruelly? Should we celebrate his ‘discovery’ of the Americas as a great event or something that took away much more than freedoms from the Natives? These questions and related ones have become relevant. Whether it is King Leopold II of Belgium, Cecil Rhodes, or Christopher Columbus, several historical figures have come under the scanner for their role in perpetuating racism, genocide, and other crimes against humanity. It is time for the memory of the dead to be reimagined, for our present to be altered, to prevent a whitewashing of their sins.

Christopher Columbus’s statues

How should contemporary policymakers deal with this question? I will try to deal with this tricky question, in this short post.

As a Newsweek article pointed out “Cities in the U.S. and elsewhere started celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day during the late 1980s. Many have, and continue to, denounce Columbus as a colonizer who enslaved, killed and forced assimilation of indigenous populations.” The gap between how the state sees such historical figures and how civil society views them can create profound tensions. Alternate conceptions of the role of such historical figures and a reading of their actions in the context of current debates can throw up some uncomfortable truths that are hard to deal with, unless policy makers and those in power take a hard, critical look at the needs of the current generation.

The same Newsweek article pointed out that in the U.K., protestors “tore down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston, while others in Belgium vandalized statues of 19th century colonizer King Leopold II, responsible for the deaths of millions in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.” Such events of taking down statues are not only cathartic for people who are at the receiving end of the rhetoric of racism and discrimination, but also reflect a change in societal norms around what is celebrated and what is accepted.

Exploring the policy angle of memorializing: Philadelphia as an example

As Elizabeth J Burling writes in her Master’s thesis, several cities do not have a policy in place for which monuments were to be erected and on what basis.

This problem has persisted in the U.S. for a long time now. She adds Indeed, Philadelphia’s relationship with memory has often been contentious – according to Gary Nash, author of First City: Philadelphia and the Forging of Historical Memory, no comprehensive history of the city was written prior to the 150th anniversary of the city’s founding,” (p.2). Her reminder that there is no distinction between works of historical significance and those used as an aesthetic expression is quite. This seems to be the case in Richmond, VA as well. Burling points out that this lack of a coordinated policy creates problems when new memorials are placed in traditional locations. She points to the distinction between a memorial and monument as one where “monuments are built to help us remember, memorials are about helping us never to forget.” Few cities such as Washington D.C. have a “24 step guide to memorialization in the Nation’s Capital,” an elaborate step by step process that helps the National Park Service decide how to go about the process of memorialization.

The history of Philadelphia’s regulations on public art is interesting. In 1959, the Aesthetic Ornamentation ordinance was initiated which set the level of public art for every construction project at one percent. Burling points to the work of De Monchaux and Schuster to articulate the five elements that should be included in any policy strategy for preserving heritage: a.Ownership and operation b.regulation c. incentives d. establishments, allocation, and enforcement of property rights and e. Information. Their argument is for governments to intervene to preserve the heritage and this task cannot be left to the private sector. Despite these five elements each city faces the question of what to memorialize. And this is precisely the question that comes to the fore when one considers history.

Whose history are we memorializing? The winners of the Civil War or that of the losers (Confederates). Given that there is still a sense of injustice and victimhood among Southerners, when it comes to the Civil War, these are raw wounds. Some groups/ nations are open to reevaluating the role of monuments and memorials in contemporary society. Others are not.

France for example, has decided that it will keep all statutes, even those that commemorate controversial figures in history. As Emmanuel Macron, the French President pointed out, this was his interpretation of acknowledging all of history. This is, at the end of the day, a policy choice, shaped by his political situation and what may be acceptable with the French people, at this point in time.

Aspects of the past have intruded our consciousness today and will continue to haunt us into the future. There is no way of getting around it, but rather only through it. How we answer the question of who we celebrate and why determines what kind of a nation we become. For nations are nothing but ‘imagined communities,’ as Benedict Anderson has quite elegantly shown. How each nation decides to remember its history is crucial to what sort of a nation it becomes.

How can charity and philanthropy help during COVID-19 crisis

I accidentally came across a short video on twitter by Chef Jose Andres. Chef Andres shared a recipe of a simple lentil soup and also a message: feed others with what you have. Feed your own family, feed the people around you. This simple message resonated with me, both as an educator and as someone who cooks. I am not a great cook, but can feed myself and others around me with the ingredients around me. Spending a lot of time in the kitchen in my formative years has taught me a few skills.

Source: aha.org

Food as philanthropy is a powerful idea. One individual that is doing well is Chef Andres, one of the 100 most influential people in the world as identified by TIME and also a philanthropist. He is a spokesperson for issues related to migration, philanthropy in the U.S. And his work can give us some ideas on what everyone of us can support and get behind, especially when institutions around us either don’t exist, to deal with issues that ordinary human beings are facing, or if they exist, they are not living upto their promise. This situation calls for a powerful force in American (and global) civil society: that of philanthropy and voluntary action.

While it is true that charity in itself cannot replace the function of governments with their billion (or trillion dollar) deep purses, at the very least, charity can act as a temporary support mechanism, a band-aid that can stop the bleeding. A crutch that can help people get by, till they get actual support and help, that they need, to get back on their feet. Philanthropy has a key role to play in promoting human welfare. It not only involves donations of money but also donations of effort, through volunteering.

Chef Andre’s work with World Kitchen Central is based on a simple premise : “Feed anybody that is hungry and bring water to anyone that is thirsty.”  Another aspect of charity and philanthropy that is relevant is made clear by his statement “the urgency of now is now, not a week from now.” This profound statement, though somewhat simplistic at face value is key to understanding how charity and philanthropy during COVID-19 crisis can be useful : often it is driven by immediate needs. Immediate need to feed someone, to provide shelter, to donate Personal protective equipment etc.

By focusing on what drives a person, he/she can act immediately, whether by writing a check, donating masks or mobilizing people to volunteer. This need for ‘expressive giving,’ as scholar Peter Frumkin calls it, is central to the idea of philanthropy. And we are seeing this manifest now, during a pandemic. Some, for instance have raised questions about Huawei’s donations of masks to Europe and other parts of the world and questioned its intention.

While donor intent and passion are central to giving and voluntary action, they are not without problems. There can be corruption, hobnobbing with powerful elite and a million other ways that certain rich philanthropists can use their money and resources to gain advantage, by leveraging their philanthropy, during this time.

Regardless of how one feels about charity, there is no doubt that the humanitarian urge to contribute to a solution will exist. And that is a positive force that both communities and governments should leverage, to provide short-term and long-term solutions to people. At a time when governments are failing to provide what is needed, both in terms of resources and direction, to dealing with one of the biggest crises of this generation, it may well be that individual action and values may help bring us together, to address some challenging issues.

As Andres asks: “Coronavirus is facing us to ask ourselves, who are our leaders? Are they the ones who give speeches or the ones with boots on the ground to do things.” His charity is helping patients dealing with COVID-19 by feeding them.

Food may well be a starting point, but it doesn’t have to stop there!

If you wish to donate to World Central Kitchen, check out – https://donate.wck.org/give/236738/#!/donation/checkout