The Aurora Dialogues Venice event titled “Health Security: Humanitarian Impacts of the Covid-19 Pandemic” was organized on October 10, 2021, during the 2021 Aurora Prize weekend in Italy. At the unprecedented 2.5-hour discussion, speakers from different regions and spheres talked openly and honestly about the brutal reality of facing COVID-19 and dealing with its short- and long-term consequences, as well as the efforts that must be taken by the global community to avoid such disasters in the future. Despite the painful experiences some of the panelists shared, the overall atmosphere at the event was optimistic, with participants expressing their ardent hope for humanity to learn from its mistakes.
The event began with Father Hamazasp from the Mekhitarist Congregation greeting the guests and welcoming them to the Moorat Rafael College, established in Venice in 1836 and located in the Baroque-style Palazzo Ca’ Zenobio. He highlighted the important role the college students had played in the resurgence of Armenian history and culture and pointed out that the ceiling fresco of the hall where the event took place had Aurora painted on it. “At the center we have Aurora – the light of the morning. It’s significative that we have our conclusive meeting here, in this hall,” said Father Hamazasp.
The discussion’s moderator Lord Ara Darzi, Chair of the Aurora Prize Selection Committee and Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London then congratulated the 2021 Aurora Prize Laureate Julienne Lusenge, who was honored at the Ceremony the day before, and turned the floor over to Aurora Co-Founders Noubar Afeyan and Ruben Vardanyan.
Impact investor and social entrepreneur Ruben Vardanyan, Co-Founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative and Noôdome, has expressed his joy with being able to be part of this special session, despite not being involved with medicine directly. He talked about the interconnectedness of modern issues and the fact that COVID-19 has brought up numerous challenges for all. “What happened with all of us during the last few years was hurting everyone, not only the people involved in healthcare. <…> This pandemic, unfortunately, has given us so many problems – not only with the vaccination, which we will also discuss today, but also with loneliness. People felt alone. People lost trust in their governments; people lost trust in the system,” said Mr. Vardanyan.
Noubar Afeyan, Co-Founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative, Co-Founder and Chairman of Moderna and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, talked about being drawn into the humanitarian work and how this was something similar to the experience of other heroes supported by Aurora, especially when it comes to the challenges they face. “There are painful parallels between the topics many of the Laureates deal with, which is man-inflicted atrocities, and what we’re witnessing today. The pandemic, with this many deaths globally, is equivalent to a crime against humanity. It just so happens that this is a virally induced crime. <…> But much of the damage has been done by humans,” noted Dr. Afeyan.
2021 Aurora Humanitarian Paul Farmer, co-founder and chief strategist of Partners In Health (PIH), agreed with that point of view by adding: “As COVID unfurled, it reminded us that these are often human-made problems. For many years, people involved in humanitarian response have also seen the inadequacy of any approach that doesn’t strengthen the health system. Since this clamor has been going on for decades, we finally have a moment when large fractions of the population understand that we need to invest in health systems. That’s really the primary bright spot.”
The topic of inequality and the way it was further worsened by the pandemic was raised by Mary Robinson, Aurora Prize Selection Committee member, Chair of The Elders, Former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The unfair care burden, which is not handled in the society in any way, was further exacerbated by COVID. Many women had to leave their jobs. At the same time, an awful lot of the essential frontline workers have been women who have carried the burden of helping us during COVID – the doctors, the nurses, but also the cleaners, and then the essential services in food stores, so many of them were also provided by women,” noted Mrs. Robinson.
Leymah Gbowee, Aurora Prize Selection Committee member, Nobel Laureate, founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, brought up the fact that many people in the poorest regions were simply unable to comply with COVID-19 restrictions due to the lack of means, and told a poignant story to illustrate her point: “During the pandemic I was stuck in Ghana, and when the mask mandate became prevalent, I asked the driver I knew, ‘Why are you not wearing a mask?’ And he said to me, ‘Madam, a mask is a dollar. If I have to choose between buying a mask and buying bread for my children, I’ll choose to buy the bread, because I don’t know this disease and I don’t know if I’m ever going to catch it, but I know hunger.’”
One of the worst things about COVID-19 pandemic is it long-term impact on the spheres like education, pointed out human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, Aurora Prize Selection Committee member, Nobel Laureate and Founder of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. “COVID made many people drop their education, and the gap between poor and rich widened even more. In Iran, like many other countries in Asia, we had a very week infrastructure and a very weak structure for online classes. According to the official sources, some 3 million students and pupils couldn’t continue their education, but we think it’s actually twice as much,” said Mrs. Ebadi.
Misinformation, lack of credible information, and false news also contributed to the devastating effects of the pandemic, argued Dele Olojede, Aurora Prize Selection Committee member, Pulitzer Prize winner and Chairman of the Board of the Kashim Ibrahim Fellowship: “We innovated our way out of quality, and these technology platforms have sort of destroyed the gate-keeping function [of journalism]. <…> The gate-keeping function is to establish what the facts are, and that had collapsed. What this has done, when the pandemic hit, was that no one was guiding the public conversation. Lots of rumors and falsehoods were crossing into the system.”
2019 Aurora Prize Laureate Mirza Dinnayi, Co-Founder and Director of Luftbrücke Irak (Air Bridge Iraq), talked about the additional pressure put on refugees by the coronavirus outbreak. “There are certain communities that had already been affected very hard by conflict. <…> After pandemic, the challenge became thousands times harder for them, because of the restrictions of movement and other factors. We saw people whose lives were at risk, and they were in a very difficult situation – they couldn’t move. They were also told they should avoid contact with other people, but they were living in refugee camps, in 4x4 meter tents, and the next family was only 3 meters away.”
That position was supported by 2016 Aurora Prize Laureate Marguerite Barankitse, Founder of Maison Shalom, who has had a first-hand experience with the vulnerability of the refugees. Mrs. Barankitse has also expressed her disappointment with the global response to COVID-19: “The pandemic has proven that the UN and other agencies are actually weak. When the pandemic took over, we entered a lockdown period. Refugees usually survive on little daily chores to get some food. And in case of the lockdown, everyone had to comply with the rules, meaning you couldn’t have contact with other people. <…> It was a complete chaos. How can people survive in a camp if they can’t get food? The agencies and international organizations were not ready. They need to be reformed.”
This was something Paul Polman, Aurora Prize Selection Committee member and co-founder and Chair of IMAGINE, wholeheartedly agreed with. “We need to be sure that global governance works. We need to pull together from the top, as well as from the bottom. People say COVID-19 was the biggest crisis, but we’ve had others, every 2-3 years, with the destruction of biodiversity and climate change. The surprise was not COVID-19, but our inability to rise to the level needed to deal with it. <…> The institutions we designed back in the 1940s are not moving forward at proper speed, and with COVID, we have discovered that we don’t have much time left,” said Mr. Polman.
It was quite heartbreaking to be getting health security advice from people and organizations who had absolutely no understanding of the local realities, noted 2020 Aurora Prize Laureate Fartuun Adan, Executive Director of Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu: “In Somalia, we have a crisis, and we have war, and on top on that, we have the coronavirus. The message we were getting from the world was “wash your hands, stay home, be safe.” And that didn’t help us at all! Most Somalians have to go out and work to put food on the table. Getting water to wash your hands wasn’t easy either. How can you send that message to people living in such conditions?”
Having dedicated his life to both devising policies and delivering healthcare to the underserved communities, Bernard Kouchner, Aurora Prize Selection Committee member, Co-Founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and former Health and Foreign Minister of France, passionately pointed out that this issue was closely connected to other factors and could only be addressed on the political level. “In the past, we never focused on other communities, we used to only be focused on ours, so this is also a highly political problem. Medicine is political. We’ve tried to disseminate for a long time that medicine should be put into policy for us to have a better world. You don’t have to do the impossible, but you should progress, step after step,” Mr. Kouchner stressed out.
Arman Voskerchyan, Founder and Managing Director of AVC Solutions for Healthcare, highlighted the need to move forward using the concept of duty of care, if we were to ever overcome the glaring inequalities in access to healthcare. “Even before the pandemic, access to health technologies and products has been a huge issue. If we take a look at Africa, which represents roughly 18–19% of the global population, in terms of medical devices and technologies, Africa represents only 1.3%. One example – lung ventilators, which are critical for the survival of COVID-19 patients. Africa has only 1.04% of the global number of ventilators, and it is kind of a disaster,” explained Mr. Voskerchyan.
The discussion was designed to be as inclusive as possible, so at some point members of the audience were invited to express their opinion on some of the covered topics. David Ignatius, Associate Editor and columnist for the Washington Post, circled back to the issue of accountability of the media: “Newspapers in the United States and in many countries are subject to legal action in they recklessly print false information. <…> One simple challenge is to extend the rules that exist now for newspapers to the other publishing platforms,” said Mr. Ignatius.
Dr. Leila Alikarami, Iranian lawyer and human rights advocate, urged everyone to raise awareness of the additional dangers that activists faced because of COVID-19. “I want to address the situation of human rights defenders, especially women human rights defenders. During this COVID their situation actually became worse. <…> When you are writing to authorities, politicians, please bear in mind that people on the ground, human rights defenders, those who are advocating for the access to vaccine, they’re being prosecuted or put in jail in many countries,” said Dr. Alikarami.
2021 Aurora Prize Laureate Julienne Lusenge, human rights defender, co-founder of Women's Solidarity for Inclusive Peace and Development (SOFEPADI) and Fund for Congolese Women (FFC), also brought up the devastating consequences of the pandemic for women. “When the pandemic started, there was fear. The population was really afraid. We saw on tv that thousands of people were dying. On top of that, women are usually relying on informal work. With COVID, they couldn’t move around to work and had to spend their savings. Now, they have absolutely nothing,” lamented Mrs. Lusenge.
2021 Aurora Humanitarian Ruby Alba Castaño, human rights activist and founder of ASOCATDAME (Meta Association for Peasants, Rural Workers and Defenders of the Environment), went as far as comparing the lack of transparent and objective journalism to the dangers of war. “There are things worse than guns, worse than bullets. Those are the microphones of the media. Sometimes the news just proliferate hatred. Where there is interest of the people who are financing the war, the victims cannot use the media to report what’s going on. I would like to see this important issue included on the international agenda,” stated Mrs. Castaño.
In conclusion, Lord Ara Darzi expressed his appreciation to all the participants of the discussion, which turned out be as informative as it was open. “I would like to take a moment to thank our distinguished panel here for the amazing contributions you gave, the diversity of the contributions [from you] and also from the audience, for some of their suggestions. I’m very grateful for that. There is a lot of rich material here,” said Lord Darzi, adding that he intended to speak to the Founders about summarizing the discussion in a paper of some sort that could be used to draw lessons for the future.