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Who is my neighbour?
I’ve never been Norway, but everything about the place makes me want to visit. Not only does it have one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world, or some of the most beautiful coastline on the planet, it also has one of the lowest levels of income inequality of any society in the world.
The birthplace of the artist Edvard Munch, as well as one of the distinguished playwright Henrik Ibsen, it has also given us the composer and pianist Edvard Grieg. It is home to the world’s longest road tunnel - the Lærdal Tunnel, 15 miles long - and around 98% of its domestic power usage is drawn from hydroelectric power plants. In a nice touch, Norway also supplies the people of London with a Christmas tree every year to say thank you for Britain’s help during World War II.
But what really matters is that Norway knows the answer to that question - ‘who is my neighbour?’ In late January, it became one of the first countries in the world to explicitly commit to sharing Covid-19 vaccine doses with poorer countries at the same time as vaccinating its own citizens. Other countries like India have already delivered vaccines as gifts to poorer countries, like Bangladesh, at the same time as vaccinating their own population.
‘We must ensure vaccines bring hope to all, not just to some’, said the Norwegian International Development Minister, Dag Inge Ulstein. ‘We cannot wait until every citizen in rich countries is vaccinated before we start vaccinating people in the low-income countries.’
At this point, some readers might complain that the Church should ‘keep out of politics’. If you don’t think that Jesus is interested in all this, please find a Bible and look up Luke 10:29-37. Which of the three men in the story of the Good Samaritan was a good neighbour? asked Jesus. The one who was ‘moved with pity’ for the man on the road and did something about it, at his own expense.
Our own country has pledged some £548m towards the pioneering work of COVAX - an international scheme to procure and deliver doses of safe and effective vaccines for fair distribution around the world - the largest single financial commitment as at 31st December 2020. This is a very good thing.
Yet, while we had secured some 367m vaccine doses by the end of January – more than five times the UK population - it has not been confirmed if and when any of these might be used to help millions of people in countries much poorer than ours. This is not a good thing. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation estimates that 99% of UK deaths will be prevented once the most vulnerable are protected (c25 million Britons).
The Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said that the world is on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure” around vaccine distribution.
Loving your neighbour is good for our health too. Many psychologists would say so. In 2017, in a United Nations survey looking at economic GDP, social support, life expectancy, freedom of choice, generosity, etc Norway was found to be the happiest place on Earth (the UK was ranked 19th).
What makes a country great? A community, a church really great? Loving your neighbour as you love yourself.