“Bill Gates, Stop Supporting Vaccine Apartheid. TRIPS Waiver Now!” read the sign that hung on my office wall for more days than I can count.
I am the executive director at a nonprofit called the Washington Fair Trade Coalition. Our organization’s tagline is “working on behalf of people and the planet for a fair global trade system.” The organization I work for has 70 member organizations in Washington State that all agree the way we’ve managed the global economy isn’t benefiting them. From there, we focus on finding solutions to the issues they face. This work has a wild amount of variation with campaigns on things like Washington State’s ban on non native fish farms in the Puget Sound by a Canadian company, water resource hoarding in Mexico by “Big Beer,” how international partners respond when labor organizers go missing, and much more.
So, in April of 2021, after the Seattle City Council passed a resolution in support of the campaign, over 100 people gathered outside the Gates Foundation—with signs depicting Gates as a monster—because of his role in holding back an international humanitarian campaign to get COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries. Not only was I there with them, I was part of a small team of folks planning the event. As someone who keeps at least one foot in a world tied to the parts of Christianity trying to do the right thing, I felt it was necessary to challenge Gates’ position. After years of work in a field that tends to adore “good” billionaires like Bill Gates who use their wealth to fund humanitarian work, I’m all too familiar with the fact that even the “good” guys get it wrong sometimes. And I believe they need to be held accountable.
How did we get here?
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and companies scrambled to get vaccines ready at record pace, South Africa and India knew from experience that developing countries would get the short end of the stick. The World Trade Organization has a set of wonky intellectual property rules (the so-called “Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property” or TRIPS rules) that have kept developing countries who can’t afford treatments away from life-saving drugs for decades, including through a 1990s AIDS crisis. In late 2020, India and South Africa filed a proposal to waive those rules so developing countries would have access to the COVID-19 vaccines. Their campaign was and is supported by 110 members of Congress and 140+ countries around the world.
Months later, even with the Biden administration coming out in favor of waiving the IP and the WTO agreeing to begin weekly meetings on the topic, there’s been little movement. The country responsible for almost single-handedly holding up the process is Germany. As they drag the process out, most folks in Western countries who want a vaccine have been able to get one—a sharp contrast to people in many developing countries who have yet to receive a single dose. A recent report notes that Western countries have bought up all the vaccine supply until 2023 or later. The phrase “Vaccine Apartheid” is a direct reflection of the split in vaccination rates between countries.
Confronting the “Good Guys”
As a development practitioner, as a community organizer, as a person who cares about the well-being of other people at all, this situation makes me incredibly angry. Some anger is solitary. This anger isn’t. Four hundred organizations, thousands of activists, and over 140 countries are collectively outraged that Germany is holding the lives and economic recovery of so many countries hostage. They’re so angry and frustrated, in fact, that a week out of Angela Merkel’s final visit to the United States as Germany’s Chancellor, activists across the U.S., including me and my team in Washington State, were making paper mache Merkel puppets, crafting giant syringes, and preparing tombstones marked with names of developing countries and the number of people from each country who had passed from COVID-19.
With our giant syringes and tombstones in tow, our crew held a rally outside the German consulate in Seattle. Reaching back to the “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” chants of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, we chanted “Whose Vaccine? Peoples Vaccine!” and proceeded to leave messages in chalk on the sidewalk for the German Consul, who refused our invitation to meet us outside. While our action was less confrontational, some people across the country prepared for actions that risked arrest in hopes that the media attention would pressure Merkel, the WTO, and others to move quickly. Having roles people generally see as good, like Bill Gates and Angela Merkel do, doesn’t make leaders immune to criticism when their bad positions leave thousands of lives hanging in the balance.
As a person who has spent years wrestling with the knowledge that institutions the public sees as good–like the Gates Foundation and the church—cause a lot of harm, this situation doesn’t shock me. For me and so many other social change-makers who grew up on the fringes of the church, these struggles feel all too familiar. Many of us were taught as kids that it was our job to make the world a better place for the most vulnerable. As we thought critically about what power structures were at play in the world, many of us decided that the best way to do that might be to confront faceless institutional giants that leave people vulnerable rather than serve at a food bank.
My faith, the faith of so many millennials, and the faith of people I admire involves social change strategies that look more like the abolition movement and less like Big Brother, Big Sister programs—which, frankly, I have nothing against, but our work addresses root causes rather than treating symptoms. My consistent, direct contact with profound needs the world faces sometimes leaves me questioning my faith and my belief in a divine being. I’ve come to accept that I don’t believe in a God that intervenes in the world. We, everyday people, are the intervention. We do the work. We make the world easier for the most vulnerable. Even on days when I’m most critical of the church, I know that growing up as a person of faith inclined me to care deeply about international solidarity.
Both the church and the Gates Foundation are generally viewed positively by the public. Despite this, I believe both institutions must be held accountable for the harm they cause. Maybe this accountability will lead to desperately-needed reforms.
Challenging the Church
As a millenial of faith figuring out how to engage a church that’s imperfect, I know I’m not alone in recognizing that we’re all faced with this reality everyday: we can choose a faith journey that sides with rebels, misfits, dissenters, enslaved folks, sex workers, etc., or we can choose to participate in a faith tradition that implicitly and sometimes explicitly honors and endorses the status quo, from slavery to physical occupation of countries and more. It’s my own feeling that if Jesus were alive today, he’d be more concerned with poverty and inequality than two women being in love or premarital sex. Unfortunately, the church I see has become so concerned with preserving its own power that it may never welcome ideas that would challenge the core of what the church has been.
I see a conflict arising between what I call the “old-guard” that holds onto tradition—even if those traditions are steeped in injustice and bigotry—and the “new-guard” that is prepared to change everything if it means creating a more inclusive space to draw people into the church. If the “new-guard” gets its way, an entirely new, life-giving institution would take its place—filling the moral vacancy that the modern-day church has left on so many issues and bringing more people and life experiences into the fold. Whose will for the church as an institution wins out is a story that remains to be written.
The way I’ve engaged with the church doesn’t represent a transition away from faith. It doesn’t represent a transition from order to chaos. It simply recognizes that old structures are collapsing under the weight of new circumstances. This collapse not only invites, but—in one of the old-guard’s favorite words—“calls” us to hold the space in brand new ways. Rebuild. Recreate. Reenvision. Redraw the lines in ways that reflect our reality and how we imagine religious figures we admire would embrace these new, brought-into-the-light parts of our collective world.
Expanding the in-group
If we choose a faith journey that sides with the dissenters instead of power-brokers, what institutional pieces have to change in our churches so that we can grow into faithful practice of that sort of encounter with the divine? I invite you to brainstorm with me what tools and attitudes we might add to our “21st-Century-church toolkit.”
I think a good place to start is to scrap the church’s tendency to think in “in-group” and “out-group” terms. If the church were no longer a proponent of the status quo, rules that have guided churches in the past and prescribed what kinds of people are welcome to participate would naturally become much more open to non-traditional experiences. Harkening back to the intellectual property campaign that consumes so much of my time right now offers a case study at the harm this in-group/out-group mentality causes. The original medical intellectual property fight happened in the early 2000s over antiretrovirals used to fight HIV AIDS. A large reason that this fight took as long as it did, was because church folks saw HIV AIDS patients as “other.” The church had the assumption at the time that all AIDS patients must be LGBTQ and, thus, they weren’t willing to back access to drugs for those folks in Africa at the same rate people had access in the United States.This unfortunate policy stance was a death sentence for many Africans.
Those of us who want a church that’s more inclusive need to be honest about the pain the church has caused and work with intensity to make sure we’re never again on the wrong side of an issue in a way that causes so much human suffering.
After months of hard labor, Gates ultimately came out in favor of an IP waiver. While this small victory brought much-needed encouragement, we still have a fight to get the WTO to pass the TRIPS waiver. It remains to be seen if solidarity with Global South countries on the part of people in the Global North can drown out the voices of over 100 lobbyists working day and night to protect Pfizer, Moderna, Astrazeneca, and Johnson & Johnson’s profits.
As the length of this fight indicates, challenging people in power isn’t easy. Organizations like the Gates Foundation and the church that can point to a list of their accomplishments may think they have a free pass to cause harm when they choose—but we’re here to prove them wrong.
I’m encouraged every day by the number of folks stepping up and working to center a new kind of Christian spirituality—a spirituality that truly values “the least of these” and proves it with its actions. Some have closer ties than others to the existing church; some work more concretely than others at challenging the church as an institution. Folks like Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz-Weber, and Sarah Bessey have long carried the torch for generations before mine. But as a new generation takes the helm of churches and church-adjacent institutions, we have an opportunity to make lasting change that reflects the experiences of many more people than the last generation of churches. What a generation critical of the church does with this chance to remake the institution is already in motion. It’s my hope that we step up to the challenge to which we’ve been called.
Cover photo credit: Ruben Bagues