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The Olympics and Public Citizen’s #StopPlayingGames Campaign

Public Citizen News / September-October 2021

By Alexandra Hartman

This article appeared in the September/October 2021 edition of Public Citizen News. Download the full edition here.

As the entire globe gathered to celebrate the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the worlds the athletes left behind could not have been more different. At the end of July, vaccination rates in the US had surpassed 50% and people were returning to something resembling normal life. On July 19th, with more than 68% of Britons vaccinated, England lifted all remaining COVID-19 restrictions and observed “Freedom Day,” with bars and clubs packed. Although cases had risen in both countries throughout July, high vaccination rates mean that deaths did not increase as substantially. Although they would face strict public health rules in Tokyo, Katie Ledecky, Tom Daley, Megan Rapinoe, and their fellow athletes from the US, Great Britain, and other wealthy, well-vaccinated countries could feel reasonably sure that their families back home were safe from disease.

Meanwhile, African countries experienced a devastating third wave of infections, with cases spiking in South Africa, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Tunisia, and elsewhere. The continent suffered nearly 1,000 deaths per day, concentrated in Namibia, South Africa, Tunisia, Uganda and Zambia, amid shortages of hospital beds and oxygen. And only 2% of Africans are fully vaccinated. As 18-year-old Ahmed Hafaoui of Tunisia won an upset gold medal in the men’s 400m freestyle, Tunisia was in the midst of one of its deadliest weeks of the pandemic. The gold medalist in  the men’s 10,000 meter race, Selemon Barega, represented Ethiopia, where less than 2% of people had received one shot.

This enormous disparity ran conspicuously contrary to the Olympic values of solidarity and fair play. Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines team, along with the People’s Vaccine Alliance, launched the #StopPlayingGames campaign to draw attention to vaccine inequity and call on world leaders to launch ambitious plans to vaccinate the world. The campaign video featured people from Global South countries including Colombia, the Philippines, Kenya, and Sierra Leone telling their stories of lack of access to vaccines during the Olympics and demanding that world leaders #StopPlayingGames with our lives and livelihoods. The video was viewed over 700,000 times, and was shared by celebrities like Mia Farrow and former Olympian Martina Navratilova, as well as Director of UNAIDS Winnie Byanyima.

The Access to Medicines also launched a petition calling on President Joe Biden to launch a $25 billion global vaccine manufacturing initiative, along with recipe sharing and technology transfer, to produce 8 billion doses of mRNA in one year, enough for 80% of people in low- and middle-income countries.

The #StopPlayingGames campaign continued throughout Tokyo 2020 and also included a series of graphics highlighting vaccine apartheid between competitors in specific Olympic events, a letter to First Lady Jill Biden calling on her to bring to the Olympics a plan vaccinate the world, and vaccine-related memes deployed to great effect on Twitter.

We launched the campaign in response to gross inaction by President Biden and other G7 leaders on global vaccine access. Despite Biden’s commitment to be an ‘arsenal of vaccines’ for the world, the US has so far only committed to donate 500 million doses to low- and middle-income countries and had only shipped 140 million doses as of September 10. Considering these countries desperately need 8 billion doses now to vaccinate their people, the U.S. dose donation is a drop in the bucket. As of this publication, ten thousand people die each day waiting for ambitious action to match Biden’s vision while the Delta variant rages across the globe with no end in sight.