Catholic principles prompt questions about a global pandemic treaty

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, in 2021. The World Health Organization has attempted to expedite negotiations for a global pandemic treaty, raising Catholic social teaching questions about subsidiarity and individual rights, says Catholic Conscience. (CNS photo/Laurent Gillieron, Reuters pool, The B.C. Catholic, CCN)

By Catholic Conscience, courtesy of The B.C. Catholic

[Catholic Conscience is a Catholic, non-partisan civic and political leadership and engagement organization, whose mission is civic evangelization through Catholic social teaching.]

As COVID-19 rates decline, many countries continue the process of “re-opening” their societies. In many cases, re-opening has been viewed as an opportunity for social restructuring in economic and cultural terms, as well as for ensuring medical and pharmaceutical preparedness for future pandemics.

Proposals have been generated at all levels of government, from local to global. In some cases, concerns have been raised about possible imbalances between the common good and subsidiarity, resulting either in changes that benefit fewer people than possible or in overreaching that may adversely affect more people than necessary.

A critical concern in the development of any new policy is to ensure that it is implemented at the proper level of government. For example, the banning of nuclear weapons at a local level may well be a step in the right direction, but more effective results might be realized if global weapons agreements were to be negotiated between relevant nations.

With respect to the pandemic, one proposal that seems to be gathering momentum is a treaty on global response to new pandemics. The World Health Organization (WHO) has attempted to expedite negotiations for such a treaty.

While the WHO website is silent as to proposed terms for such a treaty, some glimpses have been shared by individuals close to the process. According to the research and policy organization Third World Network, WHO Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus has indicated that the treaty would provide a framework for improvements in such key areas as national and global preparedness, timely and equitable access to vaccines and other countermeasures, sustainable funding for prevention and detection, surveillance, alert and national reporting mechanisms.

Many groups welcome the idea of such a treaty, and the sort of international cooperation it might encourage in order to protect lives and health in all countries. Others are skeptical, seeing risks of governmental power grabs and oppression.

Catholic Teaching

Relevant Catholic principles include:

The common good – the purpose of any government, municipal, state/provincial, national, or global, is to provide a framework in which individuals can thrive. A primary means for doing so is to help set economic and social conditions in which those things that are commonly required for development are encouraged: health, education, and public safety, for example.

Subsidiarity – the responsibility of the individual to contribute to the common good is balanced by the obligation of everyone to care for one’s self first, within the limits of their ability. This principle is extended upward from local to larger governments and organizations – the idea of every social organization is to support and help (to “subsidize”) other social organs, so that each can fulfill its proper purpose.

Stewardship – each of us, as individuals and organizations alike, is called to practice good stewardship of the resources that have been provided to us. Governments, for example, are called to exercise thrift and encourage efficiency in all their actions.
Truth – all proper forms of social interaction, including government, are firmly grounded in the need for truth in all circumstances. No one is aided in making proper life choices by the spread of disinformation.

Points to Ponder

Consider discussing the following questions with your local candidates, elected officials, and parties, and with your family, friends, neighbours, coworkers, and fellow parishioners.

On prayerful reflection, consider sharing your conclusions with your elected representatives by writing respectful and informative letters. Or perhaps consider engaging on the issue more intensively, by participating in advocacy organized by civil society organizations or by joining and participating in a political party or other movement.

Assuming the treaty is negotiated and enters into force in various countries, which level (or levels) of government would be best suited to address the following types of issues:

  • global, national, and local preparedness
  • timely and equitable access to vaccines and other countermeasures
  • sustainable funding for prevention and detection
  • surveillance, alert, and national reporting mechanisms.

What sorts of surveillance, alert, and report are appropriate for governments to engage in, in the context of a pandemic? What methods are appropriate for them to use in that context?

What are the responsibilities of individuals during a pandemic? What are the contours of their rights, and what should they choose to do within those contours, bearing in mind principles of the common good, solidarity, and any duties they might owe to those around them, at home and outside the home?

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