Monday, February 22, 2021

Lobbying About Immunizations One Year into COVID-19

Cindy standing in front of the U.S. Capitol 
in a Shot@Life T-shirt

One year ago, I stood on the steps of Capitol Hill reflecting on a day of lobbying about global vaccines at the UN Foundation's Shot@Life Campaign Summit. I was lucky to talk to lawmakers in Washington D.C. mere weeks before our country locked down for COVID-19. Like many times before, I was there as a volunteer to urge Congress to fund global immunization programs because every child deserves a chance at a healthy life.

I’d never felt so strongly that I was in the right place at the right time with the right message. For 10 years, I’d continually pulled the attention of my senators and representatives to support global health programs for low-income countries. As information trickled out about coronavirus, I sensed a new awareness growing among staff and members. Policymakers were, for the first time, considering how global diseases could touch them here at home. I didn’t have all the answers about COVID-19, but I had answers about equitable and efficient vaccine distribution.  

In 2021, of course, our Shot@Life conference and lobby visits are happening virtually. I’ll be meeting with congressional offices over Zoom tomorrow. How has our messaging changed in a year?

It’s Way More Personal

Crickett Nicovich and I talk with Rep. Blaine
Luetkemeyer shortly before the US locked down

In past conversations with members and aides, we focused on lives "over there" in other countries. I don't think they really heard me when I said, "Polio anywhere is a threat everywhere." They certainly didn't really think I meant here. Maybe I didn't even push that point as hard as I could have.

Now, COVID-19 is here and 500,000 Americans are not. We’ve lost friends, family, and next-door neighbors. (My neighbor was literally the first person I knew who died of coronavirus last spring) We understand now what it is to clamor for vaccines before loved ones contract a deadly disease. We travel long distances for access to shots if we must. Texans are even living through disease threat while lacking basics like heat and water. Americans now experience their own personal versions of stories I used to tell about families in low-income countries.

It’s About More Than “Lives Saved”

Gavi CEO Seth Berkely talks about "lives
saved" at the 2020 Shot@Life Summit

My talking points used to center around how many lives we will save with our U.S. investments in programs like Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. After all, Gavi helps vaccinate 86% of the world’s children, so every increase brought us closer to a world where no children would die of vaccine preventable disease.

Even beyond life-threatening hardships, my 2021 message is also about the other things viruses take from us. People all over the world have lost income, education, gathering with others, the freedom to travel, and so much more. Now that members of Congress see their constituents feel the pain of these other losses, we can move the conversation beyond life and death. Now that the interconnectedness of the world is so obvious, we can talk about how the pandemic will not end for any of us until it’s over for ALL of us. 

We Can Come Back Better

With all that COVID-19 has forced us to learn about vaccine distributions, we now can re-imagine the way we approach immunizations. We can come back better and more efficient with our new lessons learned. We can normalize strategies worldwide, like:

  • barcodes for vaccine vials for tracking accountability

  • digital vaccine records

  • vaccine registries

  • employment of vaccine appointments for efficiency 

  • using cell phones for vaccine reminders

  • physical distancing at distribution site to decrease infections

  • better hygiene

We’re Not Helpless

Bad policies combined with bad luck got us into this. Like so many are saying on social media right now, “It didn’t have to be this way.” But it doesn’t have to stay this way either. There are already mechanisms put into place by people who are already the best at delivering health solutions worldwide. We must join the rest of the world to fund them. By continuing our support of UNICEF, Gavi (the Vaccine Alliance), and USAID, and the CDC for their existing infectious disease programs, we will also support the same infrastructure and workers that will deliver COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and treatments.

YOU are not helpless. You can help by calling and writing to your member of Congress with this message to support Shot@Life volunteers in our meetings:

“As your constituent, I support the UN Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign. Immunization efforts have seen tremendous success, preventing tens of millions of deaths globally since 2000. I call on you to fully fund global immunization programs for FY22 at the following levels: 

• $290 million for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance 

• $134 million for UNICEF 

• $211.2 million for CDC global polio eradication programs 

• $60 million for CDC measles elimination activities 

• $65 million for USAID polio eradication efforts 

As the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated with devastating results, now is a critical moment to protect the progress made in immunizations, strengthen primary health systems, and enhance our country’s global health security against current and future disease threats by protecting Americans at home and abroad.”

Cynthia Changyit Levin has been a UN Foundation Shot@Life Champion since the launch of the campaign 10 years ago. She is the author of the upcoming book "From Changing Diapers to Changing the World: Why Moms Make Great Advocates and How to Get Started."