COVID-19 may be waning in the U.S., but it rages elsewhere, which threatens our progress; we must intervene for all our sakes | COMMENTARY

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Unidentified women comfort family members of a person who died of COVID-19, at a crematorium in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Tuesday, May 25, 2021. India crossed another grim milestone Monday with more than 300,000 people lost to the coronavirus, while a devastating surge of infections appeared to be easing in big cities but was swamping the poorer countryside. (AP Photo/ Dar Yasin)

The mood in the U.S. feels hopeful, but for tens of millions of others across the world the darkest days of the pandemic are just beginning. As the head of the Baltimore-based international humanitarian organization Catholic Relief Services (CRS) — and a man who recently lost family in India to the coronavirus — I can attest to the COVID-19 tsunami unfurling elsewhere.

In Nepal, COVID cases have overtaken a struggling health care system. In Brazil, children are dying at alarmingly high rates. And in certain parts of India, the air is thick with crematorium smoke. As an Indian colleague remarked, “People are gripped by fear, as they hear news of lost relatives and friends, wondering, ‘Will my family be next?’”


I lost my mother-in-law in Kolkata on Mother’s Day, and my father-in-law there less than two weeks later. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., I am now able to visit my own mother, who is 87, and five siblings after more than a year, just by driving up the Northeast corridor from Ellicott City to Boston.

It’s surreal to think that these disparate realities can co-exist. But for those of us who work on issues related to global poverty, we’ve seen how a lack of vaccine supply and inequitable distribution have created two very different worlds. As the World Health Organization’s director-general said in January, “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure — and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”


Yet there is reason to be optimistic. President Joe Biden recently announced that the U.S. will share an additional 20 million vaccine doses with other countries, totaling 80 million surplus doses shared by the USA by July 4. While this additional commitment is a welcome step forward in our fight for vaccine equity, more can be done if we want to stop the pandemic in its tracks.

The U.S. needs to provide more funding for local health care systems. Vaccines don’t save lives, vaccinations do. COVID-19 vaccines in the USA are so plentiful that we’re bribing people to get shots. In fact, in Maryland you can win up to $400,000 for getting vaccinated; $1 million in Ohio.

For most countries, scaling up a national vaccine rollout is a massive endeavor. Few countries can do it alone. It’s unacceptable that countries like the Congo have had to return over a million doses of vaccine because they don’t have the resources to distribute them.

We don’t have to look too far into the past to see an example of the type of global public health leadership the U.S. is capable of. In response to the AIDS pandemic of the early 2000s, the U.S. launched The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, arguably one of the most successful public health initiatives in history. American leadership at the time took the risk because it was the right thing to do. We need to have the same boldness now.

Pope Francis encourages “political leaders to work actively for the common good, to provide the means and resources needed to enable everyone to lead a dignified life and, when circumstances allow, to assist them in resuming their normal daily activities.” It is concerning to see the virulence of the virus in India, and it is even more concerning to hear how those who have received vaccinations are still falling ill. Providing vaccines and stopping the pandemic is not only a humanitarian issue, but it is also the only way to prevent a new rise in the USA of cases and a continuing cycle of deaths.

To be sure, if we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that we’re all interconnected. The virus knows no borders, and we must be bold, yet humble to eradicate it. As we come together with our families in the U.S. in the next few months, it’s my hope that our sisters and brothers overseas –those who remain in isolation — will not be forgotten. Too many families are searching for medical services, too many are searching for hospital beds, and too many are searching for the oxygen to keep their family members alive. My family has felt the consequences of the pandemic, and I know many other families have suffered around the world. Let’s ensure no one else has to suffer the same fate.

Sean Callahan ( is CEO and president of Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services.