It’s certainly a relief to see COVID-19 restrictions eased and life returning to normal as more and more Canadians get vaccinated.
The vaccines we have won’t provide 100 per cent immunity but should be sufficient to prevent further outbreaks. We’re told that soon travel restrictions and social distancing will be a thing of the past.
Or will they?
While countries like Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and other wealthy nations have successfully vaccinated the majority of their citizens with at least one dose of the vaccine, countries with large numbers of people living as refugees, like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen, have barely begun to vaccinate their populations. This is also the case throughout Africa and in much of the developing world.
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No one is safe from COVID-19 until everyone, everywhere is safe.
This isn’t to say scientists haven’t done an extraordinary job in developing effective vaccines in record time. The problem is that viruses develop new variants and even new strains as they spread through populations.
Thus far, we seem to have been lucky. While no variants have developed that can’t be held in check by current vaccines, there’s no guarantee this trend will continue.
If COVID-19 takes hold among a vulnerable population, already weakened by famine and living in the tight and unhealthy confines of a refugee camp, we don’t know what kinds of variants and strains will develop. And we don’t know if our current vaccines will be effective. Given the ease of global travel, we could well find ourselves where we were in March 2020 again.
This is nothing new. Human rights advocates have been warning us for decades that the movement of large numbers of displaced people is a potential health nightmare for the entire planet. In several instances, the fast actions of groups like the World Health Organization may have prevented global catastrophe.
Many in the world don’t seem to understand our interconnectedness. Diseases don’t care about our nationality or our level of wealth.
Perhaps COVID-19 is making us aware that we need to make a paradigm shift. One message I repeat over and over to my students is that each of them is a gift to the world. Our civilization needs good people doing amazing and creative things to make life better for everyone. Each of them is filled with unlimited potential. I remind my students that this is true for each of their neighbours as well.
What’s true for people in a Canadian high school is true for every human on the planet. If we continue to value Canadian lives more than we value Congolese or Yemini lives, we put our own well-being at risk.
To end the COVID-19 crisis, it’s essential that we drastically increase access to and distribution of vaccines all over the world. We also need to improve the health conditions of our most at-risk populations, those living in refugee camps and other situations of dire poverty and starvation.
It would also be helpful to declare a ceasefire in every armed conflict and put a moratorium on all international sales of military equipment.
We will likely never solve all the problems the world faces. But if we can begin to show respect to our neighbours all around the world through equitable access to such simple things as health care, we certainly increase our chances.
Maybe one day we will look back on the COVID-19 crisis as the time when a little virus taught us that a person’s nationality doesn’t matter. The coronavirus sees every person as equal and so should we.
Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. For interview requests, click here.
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