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ROME – Pope Francis Monday told ambassadors accredited to the Holy See that greater political commitment is needed to ensure equal access to COVID-19 vaccines and criticized division over the issue which he said is rooted in the politicization of the pandemic and the spread of misinformation.
In his Jan. 10 address, the pope noted that after two years, “The fight against the pandemic still calls for a significant effort on the part of everyone.”
“We have realized that in those places where an effective vaccination campaign has taken place, the risk of severe repercussions of the disease has decreased,” he said, and urged political leaders to “immunize the general population as much as possible.”
Calling healthcare “a moral obligation,” Pope Francis lamented the fact that “we live in a world of strong ideological divides,” including when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines.
“Frequently people let themselves be influenced by the ideology of the moment, often bolstered by baseless information or poorly documented facts,” he said, adding, “Every ideological statement severs the bond of human reason with the objective reality of things.”
Francis said the pandemic is an invitation for the world to adopt a “reality therapy” capable of confronting the issue “head on” by finding effective and suitable ways to resolve it.
While vaccines themselves “are not a magical means of healing,” they are “the most reasonable solution for the prevention of the disease,” he said.
“A political commitment is thus needed to pursue the good of the general population through measures of prevention and immunization that also engage citizens so that they can feel involved and responsible, thanks to a clear discussion of the problems and the appropriate means of addressing them,” he said.
In this regard, the pope said the lack of clear communication and decision-making has caused mistrust and confusion, which “undermines social cohesion, fueling new tensions.”
The result of this, he said, is a “social relativism” that is detrimental to both the harmony and unity of the population.
Pope Francis called for a “comprehensive commitment” from the international community in ensuring that the entire global population has equal access to vaccines and basic medical care, noting that in many areas of the world, “universal access to health care remains an illusion.”
“At this grave moment in the life of humanity, I reiterate my appeal that governments and concerned private entities demonstrate a sense of responsibility, developing a coordinated response at every level,” he said, and urged states to establish an international instrument for managing the pandemic with the help of the World Health Organization.
A policy of “generous sharing” must be a key principle of the pandemic response, especially when it comes to vaccines, he said, and urged entities such as the World Trade Organization and the World Intellectual Property Organization to adapt their legal instruments “lest monopolistic rules constitute further obstacles to production and to an organized and consistent access to healthcare on a global level.”
In his speech, the pope recalled the various trips he made throughout the past year, the last of which was his Dec. 2-6 visit to Cyprus and Greece, during which he met with migrants and refugees living in a large reception camp on the Greek island of Lesbos.
“Their eyes spoke of the effort of their journey, their fear of an uncertain future, their sorrow for the loved ones they left behind and their nostalgia for the homeland they were forced to depart,” he said, insisting that “Before those faces, we cannot be indifferent or hide behind walls and barbed wires under the pretext of defending security or a style of life.”
Reflecting on the global migration crisis, Francis thanked governments who have welcomed newcomers, saying he is aware of the difficulties some countries are facing due to the large influx of people seeking asylum.
“No one can be asked to do what is impossible for them, yet there is a clear difference between accepting, albeit in a limited way, and rejecting completely,” he said, saying there is an urgent need “to overcome indifference and to reject the idea that migrants are a problem for others.”
This mentality, he said, leads to “the dehumanization of those migrants concentrated in hotspots where they end up as easy prey to organized crime and human traffickers, or engage in desperate attempts to escape that at times end in death.”
“Sadly, we must also note that migrants are themselves often turned into a weapon of political blackmail, becoming a sort of ‘bargaining commodity’ that deprives them of their dignity,” he said, and urged members of the European Union to develop a common and cohesive strategy for dealing with the migration issue.
A coordinated EU migration and asylum policy, he said, must be conceived “with a view to sharing responsibility for the reception of migrants, the review of requests for asylum, and the redistribution and integration of those who can be accepted.”
Solutions to problems such as migration, the pandemic, and climate change, he said, are often fragmented and a growing unwillingness to dialogue at all levels “fuels further tensions and divisions, as well as a generalized feeling of uncertainty and instability.”
Pope Francis called for a strengthening of multilateral democracy, which is said is experiencing a “crisis of trust” due to the weakened credibility of social, governmental, and intergovernmental systems.
“Important resolutions, declarations and decisions are frequently made without a genuine process of negotiation in which all countries have a say,” he said, insisting that this has caused suspicion of international agencies and has damaged multilateralism, making it more difficult to resolve global challenges.
In many international organizations, “members entertaining differing visions of the ends they wish to pursue,” he said, observing that “Not infrequently, the center of interest has shifted to matters that by their divisive nature do not strictly belong to the aims of the organization.”
“As a result, agendas are increasingly dictated by a mindset that rejects the natural foundations of humanity and the cultural roots that constitute the identity of many peoples,” he said.
This is “a form of ideological colonization” that leaves no space for freedom of expression, he said, and criticized the “cancel culture” now “invading many circles and public institutions.”
A “one-track thinking” has developed which is “constrained to deny history or, worse yet, to rewrite it in terms of present-day categories,” he said, arguing that history must be “interpreted in accordance with a hermeneutics of that particular time.”
Multilateral diplomacy, then, must be to be “truly inclusive, not canceling but cherishing the differences and sensibilities that have historically marked various peoples,” he said.
He urged nations and leaders not to overlook “the existence of certain enduring values,” specifically mentioning “the right to life, from conception to its natural end, and the right to religious freedom.”
Pope Francis also delved into the issues of climate change and the many conflicts scattered throughout the globe.
There has been a growing awareness of the need to care for the environment in recent years, and at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, “several steps were made in the right direction, even though they were rather weak in light of the gravity of the problem to be faced.”
“Much still remains to be done, and so 2022 will be another fundamental year for verifying to what extent and in what ways the decisions taken in Glasgow can and should be further consolidated in view of COP27, planned for Egypt next November,” he said.
Francis then pointed to the numerous global conflicts that are raging in Syria, Yemen, Israel and Palestine, Libya, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Ukraine, the southern Caucasus nations, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Myanmar.
Stressing the need for stronger efforts to promote dialogue and fraternity, he said “The entire international community must address the urgent need to find solutions to endless conflicts that at times appear as true proxy wars.”
As he has in the past, the pope also called for an end to the global arms trade, saying the “the abundance of weapons on hand and the unscrupulousness of those who make every effort to supply them” only exacerbate conflicts.
He urged the world to move toward nuclear disarmament, saying the production of nuclear weapons diverts resources that could be invested in human development while the use of these weapons “not only has catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences, but also threatens the very existence of humanity.”
To this end, he called for the resumption of negotiations in Vienna regarding the nuclear accord with Iran.
Pope Francis stressed the importance of education and labor as key factors for both navigating the pandemic and building a better society in its aftermath.
Calling education “the primary vehicle of integral human development,” he lamented that so many instances of clerical sexual abuse took place in educational settings, “resulting in serious psychological and spiritual consequences for those who experienced them.”
“These are crimes, and they call for a firm resolve to investigate them fully, examining each case to ascertain responsibility, to ensure justice to the victims and to prevent similar atrocities from taking place in the future,” he said.
He also pointed to the risks of distance-learning during the pandemic, noting that while the technology that made it possible for students to study at home is valuable, humanity must “be watchful lest these instruments substitute for true human relationships.”
“If we learn to isolate ourselves at an early age, it will later prove more difficult to build bridges of fraternity and peace. In a world where there is just ‘me,’ it is difficult to make room for ‘us,’” he said.
Francis urged political leaders to invest more in education and work opportunities, saying the unemployment crisis from pandemic has “highlighted persistent inequalities in various social and economic sectors.”
“The number of people falling under the category of extreme poverty has shown a marked increase,” he said, insisting that “greater cooperation is needed among all actors on the local, national, regional and global levels, especially in the short term.”
Pope Francis closed his speech telling ambassadors accredited to the Holy See that they should be unafraid “to make room for peace in our lives by cultivating dialogue and fraternity among one another.”
“The gift of peace,” he said, “is contagious; it radiates from the hearts of those who long for it and aspire to share it, and spreads throughout the whole world.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen