The Covid-19 vaccine has highlighted the vast inequities in our global health system. The World Health Organization estimates that while 1 in 4 people have been vaccinated in high-income countries, only 1 in 500 have been vaccinated in low-income states. As richer countries have stockpiled vaccines — millions of which are yet unused — the virus continues to ravage poorer countries, with new waves, cases, and deaths consistently on the rise. Alongside funding and accessibility issues, skepticism and a lack of trust in governments have also suppressed vaccination rates.
Earlier this year the Atlantic Institute, a global community of changemakers dedicated to addressing the persistent systemic causes of global inequities, invited Reos Partners to help a group of concerned Atlantic Fellows explore the issue of vaccine equity around the world. In this interview the Reos Partners Project Lead and Lead Facilitator, as well as two of the participating Atlantic Fellows share how they broached this insurmountable issue and the impact they’re hoping to have.
Akanimo Akpan is a Senior Consultant at Reos Partners Johannesburg and the Project Lead for the Rapid Action Lab with Atlantic Institute. He is passionate about the progress of Africa, and is determined to help champion systemic interventions around governance and policy throughout the continent.
Rachel Jones is a Senior Associate at Reos Partners Johannesburg where she is a leading expert in social lab methodology and coaching systems change. Rachel was the Lead Facilitator of the rapid action lab organized for the Atlantic Fellows.
Tanya Charles is a Senior Atlantic Fellow Engagement Lead at the Atlantic Institute where she sets up learning and engagement events for and with the Senior Fellows and program staff. Her work focuses on women's rights in the areas of sexual and reproductive health, land redistribution, prevention of gender-based violence, and unpaid care work.
How did the Atlantic Institute come to explore the issue of vaccine inequity? Why was Reos Partners involved?
TC: Our ethos at Atlantic is to work across a variety of geographies, perspectives, and fields to spark new solutions to the problems of the world. A number of our Fellows were working in the area of Covid-19 response, particularly around addressing inequities related to vaccine distribution. We asked Reos to help us come together and go from identifying the problem to collectively ideating solutions and then taking those solutions to action.
AA: This was one of the first times the Atlantic Institute convened these amazing leaders from around the world and enabled them to take a collective action toward addressing this pressing need. Reos facilitated a Rapid Action Lab, a process that evolved out of Social Labs Methodology, which aims to help people prototype and come to innovative action on a challenging problem in a condensed period of time. This approach was able to support a response in the midst of the pandemic.
Reos gathered Atlantic Fellows from all over the world to participate in the Rapid Action Lab. What benefit did that have?
TC: Hearing from other people and gaining new perspectives not only builds solidarity, it lifts your head up from the local experience you might be having to see it as systemic, structural, and connected. That was one of the biggest outcomes of this workshop. It really gives people the opportunity to go from a more localized knowledge experience to envisioning solutions that can potentially have ripple effects to a bigger community. That connecting of the dots to reveal a systemic picture is really important. That systemic picture is what will help us tackle the root causes of social injustice.
CB: A richness comes from gathering groups of people who see issues differently and come from different backgrounds, but it takes expert facilitation to be able to have that conversation in a way that is generative and productive and allows people to feel safe enough that they are open to learning and connection. Reos facilitated with such care, thoughtfulness, and intentionality around enabling transdisciplinary conversation about important issues — which have a lot of controversy — in such a way that we all came out with a greater understanding. Atlantic Fellows is a broad network; Reos connected us to each other as change agents.
What value did the Rapid Action Lab provide to the participants?
RJ: It provided a different space to think and shift mindsets. Especially when you're in a crisis, when the impulse is often rushed in a linear way towards a solution. The opportunity to slow down, stop, and reflect is extremely valuable. Stopping and reflecting together, in a more systematic way, is even more valuable. Hearing other perspectives or having perspectives confirmed helps everyone realize they’re not alone. We offered a few creative and dialogue processes that got people thinking and talking to each other differently.
What was the greatest takeaway for you personally?
CB: One of my big learning points was being put in a breakout room with a Fellow from America whose work was around vaccinating low-income areas where there wasn't enough vaccine supply. It was fascinating because I hadn't really thought about there not being fair access to supply even in states which had enough.
For all of us there were these moments of learning where we broadened our understanding of the issue and of what it looks like on the ground in other countries. That's important for developing thoughtful global work and for being able to approach the issue of vaccine equity as a pathway to doing other health equity work.
The issue of vaccine inequity is part of a much larger systemic global health issue—how do you even begin to find a solution to the problem?
AA: At Reos Partners the process is a co-creative, generative, experimental journey we take together. Our work is to allow people to see new things and make connections that they otherwise would not have made.
RJ: We want people to come up with ideas and the impetus and energy to keep going with them. We asked people to challenge their thinking. Once they did that, they started asking themselves, what can I do in my sphere of influence and capacity right now, based on what I'm hearing and learning and thinking as a result of this process? We don't have an agenda about vaccine equity or what we want people to do about it, but we want to support the Fellows' agency to do something that is important for them.
CB: Within the Rapid Action Lab we chatted a lot about individual positions — what we could do as change agents in our community, but also what we could do as a collective community around this issue. There's a lot of power in that because the group was transdisciplinary all over the world.
How did perspectives on vaccine inequity change during the workshop?
CB: What came up strongly from people across the globe were the themes of inadequate leadership, layers of inequity, the complex grief and dying systems that were neglected during Covid, racism, and mistrust and skepticism. It was fascinating to see how, although we all arrived wanting to work on vaccine equity, what that means and how we understood it in our local contexts were very different. That was one of the great powers of getting diverse people talking about the same issue. It added texture and rich understanding to what vaccine equity is about.
What next steps did you take?
TC: We made a grant available for the Fellows to implement the actions they want to take. There's a project on child-related vaccine issues, which is a collaboration between Fellows in South Africa and Indonesia. There are other campaigns to address youth vaccine uptake and to increase vaccine confidence. Others are deepening the work they were already doing based on the knowledge that came out of the workshop with Reos.
CB: I am part of an organization called Women Leaders for Planetary Health. We advocate for planetary health which focuses on both protecting human health and the environment. I partnered with two other Atlantic Fellows, Dana Walrath and Ifeanyi Nsofor, to host a virtual workshop with speakers and participants from all over the globe. The Planetary Health framework served as a way for people to understand how vaccine inequity was just one among many global health issues we have to address.
As a way of honoring the Rapid Action Lab and acting on what I believe in, I want to plant seeds of conversation about vaccine equity in other spaces where these conversations may not be happening. That's why we attracted people from all over the globe to the webinar. The hope is that it has a ripple effect. Reos was the first ripple. Now we all have to do something to expand the ripple.
Visual output of Women Leaders for Planetary Health & Atlantic Institute Workshop designed by Lita Currie.
What impact do you hope events like your webinar will have on the greater population?
CB: My hope is that people who currently don't have access to the vaccine realize we need to advocate for proper access to vaccines, and those who have been lucky enough to be vaccinated in high-income countries realize it's their problem, too. This pandemic won’t end unless everyone is vaccinated. It doesn't matter that privileged bubbles have been vaccinated. We will still face Covid and new, worse variants unless we're all working together.