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The Arms Race: Many miles to go

The Arms Race: Many miles to go

This week, Tortoise launched its campaign to help spread vaccinations around the world. Here’s what we’re planning to do next


This week, we’ve got going on with The Arms Race – the effort to bring together a coalition of coalitions to vaccinate the world by the end of 2022. And let’s not tiptoe around: the one thing that’s clear so far is that it’s going to be hard. Individually, we all know it needs to happen; collectively, well, it’s not happening.

You find yourself asking: who gives a shot? Because this is not a case of lighting the blue touchpaper. The calls for a global vaccine rollout are simply not cutting through. Unless the G20 finance ministers who are meeting in Venice today make a set of urgent commitments, then the summer of 2021 – Africa’s winter – is effectively lost.

Everyone seems to get the arguments: no one is safe until we all are. But regardless of the warnings that the next variant could be more virulent than the last, that the calculations that the third wave could cost trillions, and the appeals that are made to human conscience… well, despite all that, the public aren’t engaged and politicians aren’t feeling it. At least, not yet.

I’m James Harding, I’m the editor and co-founder of Tortoise. And, in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I want to call out the fact that there’s a job of work here for the media.

There are more than four million people dead from Covid so far. Long Covid is debilitating tens of millions more. And yet the next wave of infections and deaths is hardly leading the TV news, it’s not making its mark on the likes of the BBC or CNN, it’s not landing on the front page of the papers. We don’t have on-the-ground reporting, certainly not much of it; we’re not seeing the journalism that, in past years, has really brought home to us what it’s like to witness waves of European migration or Ebola or famine. And yet this last week in Africa has been the worst for the continent in the pandemic so far. This is a story that isn’t about to break; it’s a story that’s broken – but still we’re not seeing it. 

To be fair, I’ve seen some powerful writing from around the world: if you get the chance, do take the time to read Mohammed Lamorde on how Uganda is being left in the lurch. As he writes in The New York Times: “We can now confidently say that Covid-19 is a preventable disease. Sadly, unless immediate action is taken by wealthier countries with vaccine stockpiles, vaccine shortages in the face of surging cases and deaths will be an enduring legacy of the Covid-19 outbreak in Uganda and the rest of Africa.”

Similarly, Jeff Sachs wrote unarguably this week on the moral, economic and, in fact, self-interested case to vaccinate the world now. 

And, at Tortoise, we’ve started a summer of concerted reporting on The Arms Race – vaccines vs variants, worldwide. And so I just wanted to say “thank you” to Jeremy Hunt, Emma Corrin, Elif Shafak, Caroline Lucas, Emma Kennedy, James O’Brien, all of whom, in different ways and with different points of view, have weighed in, personally and passionately, to make a call that needs to be heard.

In all our journalism, what we’ve been trying to do is also give support to those people who, frankly, have been on the frontline of this long before we, as a newsroom, woke up to it: we have tried to use our reporting to drive donations to Go Give One and to raise awareness for the campaigns like the Covid Collaborative in the US and the Pandemic Action Network in Europe.  

But I hope that dogged journalism is going to be just part of this campaign.

Because, yes, it may be hard going, but if, like us, you’ve just got engaged in this effort, you can only be impressed by the determination and the willingness of people to win this arms race. This week, we had calls with people at Facebook who were keen to see how their “data for good” team can help; we’ve been talking to Unilever, who are looking to see if someone can join us to help build a campaign that runs from September to April next year; we had meetings with former White House officials, both from the George W. Bush and from Barack Obama’s administration, and they’re now working with – or perhaps I should say working on – the Biden team to help on that vaccine roll-out; in London, we’ve been doing to the same, talking to people in or around Boris Johnson’s team; we’ve spoken to campaigners who have worked on Live Aid and Make Poverty History and who are advising us on how best to run a public campaign around Covid-19 and global vaccination; we’ve talked to a good many people, of course, in the health agencies working on the frontline of the vaccines and treatment roll-out; and, in fact, we’ve also spoken to a fair few people who are helping us plug into the world of sport, as if it’s going to be an arms race, as one person suggested, we have to recruit some of the most famous “arms” in the world to this campaign.

So then you might ask: what next? 

i) The team: we want to pull together a small executive team working on this – and nothing else – from now until April. At Tortoise, we are going to commit someone full time. Unilever, as I said, is looking to find someone too. I hope by next week that at least one other big business organisation that we’ve been speaking to will have committed their one person to that effort. And then we’ll be up and running.

ii) The ask: we are going to use the next few weeks, this time in July, to refine what we are going to ask of the public, business, pharmaceutical companies, tech platforms and governments. Heaven knows, we’ve got to get that right.

iii) The coalitions: by the end of this month, we are aiming to have a lead on each of our main coalitions – business, tech, media, faith, finance, NGOs, influencers, and politics.  

Everyone, we know, is long overdue a holiday. But if you’ve got thoughts of what you could do or, simply, what we should do, please let us know. If there was ever a moment for an open newsroom, one that’s interested in what happens next, this feels like it.