WHO director says we need a vaccine for ‘misguided nationalism’ to stop rich nations getting the lion’s share of vaccines

Tedros sitting down in a suit and tie, listening to his colleague Mike Ryan speak.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the WHO. NETFLIX © 2021
  • In a new Netflix documentary, the director general of the WHO says “we don’t have vaccines for misguided nationalism.”
  • The gap between COVID-19 vaccine availability in rich and poor countries is only growing wider.
  • COVID-19 should be a wakeup call, he says, for us “to behave as a global community.”

When Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, visited China in January of 2020, his agency didn’t understand much about the coronavirus.

It would take the WHO another two months to call this crisis a pandemic, three more to establish that face masks can be beneficial when worn by the general public, and half a year to acknowledge airborne transmission may spread the coronavirus beyond six feet between people.

Finally, then, “we started to know the virus,” Tedros said, in the new Netflix documentary called, “Convergence: Courage in a crisis,” released on Tuesday.

The film shares intimate scenes from the work and lives of doctors, ambulance workers, cleaners, patients, and others who’ve been on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic throughout 2020, in countries including China, the US, Brazil, Peru, Iran, England, India, and Switzerland (where Tedros works).

It also shines a light on how poorly health systems and political forces around the world have managed this crisis. For Tedros, the ultimate frustration has been the world’s unwillingness to work as one during this time, with rich world leaders using the virus as a political tool or hoarding their vaccines for boosters, as poor countries struggle.

No ‘vaccines for misguided nationalism’

Close up of Renata Alves, wearing a mask
Renata Alves, who’s also a main character in the documentary, is a volunteer who helps direct a private ambulance through the Paraisópolis favela on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil. NETFLIX © 2021

Vaccines have been well established as our best route out of this pandemic.

The COVID-19 vaccines we have can make the virus a manageable illness that is generally not life-threatening. They also help reduce transmission of the virus, since vaccinated people with breakthrough infection appear to be less infectious, and for less time. In turn, the evidence we have suggests, vaccines can help curtail the spread of this virus around the world, which could help prevent the emergence of new variants.

And yet, the gap between vaccine supplies for rich and poor countries only continues to grow.

The US, now the world leader in vaccine donations, while promising to give away more than a billion vaccine doses to other countries, has only delivered on about a fifth of that promise. (Meanwhile, the US started its own booster campaign last month.)

Similarly to the US, the WHO’s own COVAX alliance is behind schedule, only shipping 355 million of the more than 5 billion doses that program has promised.

“In WHO we say ‘we need vaccines for COVID,’ but we don’t have vaccines for misguided nationalism, we don’t have vaccines for inequality, no vaccines for poverty,” Tedros said.

“What makes me sad is when the politics fail, even the technical knowledge doesn’t work,” Tedros said in the film. “We have to fight this virus in unison.”

Fielding death threats

The director general also mentioned the many “death threats” and “racist attacks” he and his colleagues at the WHO received during the pandemic, which escalated right around the same time that then-President Trump threatened to “terminate” US support for the WHO in the spring of 2020.

“We don’t mind about that,” the Ethiopian health expert said of the death threats. “We don’t care about ourselves. We care about our world, because people are dying.”

“For me, COVID-19 is a call, a clear call, a call that is telling us to really behave – to behave as a global community.”