The Fight for a 'People's Vaccine'

Students learn about and discuss why people around the world are calling for a “people’s vaccine” to protect everyone against Covid.



Invite students to reflect on the following quote by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations agency focused on health.

"Our world has changed. Our challenges are greater. Our fragilities have been exposed. Our systems need a reset. Everyone has a role to play."

Ask each student in turn to share their thoughts and feelings about the quote.

If your class is remote, invite students to drop their names into the chat to create a speaking order. Ask the first person to share their thoughts and feelings, then have them pass “the turn” to the next person in the chat.  This way everyone will have a chance to speak and listen.  All will know their turn will come.   

If you’re in person, consider using an imaginary talking piece that is sent around the circle to invite all students to speak one after the other, while respecting Covid safety protocols.

Ask students:

  • What do you believe this quote is refers to?  (Think about who said it.) 
  • Do you agree or disagree with what the Director-General said? What parts? Why? 

Summarize what students share and supplement it as needed with some or all of the information below.


Teacher Background

Earlier this year, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said this about Covid-19:

“It has been shocking to see the disproportionate toll of Covid-19 on individuals and groups who are marginalized and suffer discrimination based on descent – in particular, people from ethnic or religious minorities, as well as indigenous peoples.

Shocking – but not surprising.

People who have been pushed behind, and rendered powerless, by generations of discrimination, have systematically unequal access to services and opportunities – including in education, shelter, sanitation, access to employment and justice and participation in decisions that affect them. They are placed at a structural disadvantage when it comes to any threat. ….

When Covid-19 hit, members of discriminated groups were overexposed to contagion because of their low-paid and precarious work in specific industries – including healthcare.

They were underprotected, because of limited access to healthcare and social protections, such as sick leave and unemployment or furlough pay.

They were** structurally less able to isolate themselves** if they had been infected -- due to inadequate living conditions and limited access to sanitation – meaning the virus could spread much more easily within their communities.

And the pandemic kept making all these factors worse.

Over the past 11 months, the poor have gotten poorer, and those suffering discrimination have endured worse discrimination.”

Video: None of Us Is Safe Until All of Us Are Safe

To illustrate some of what Michelle Bachelet said above, show the Amnesty International video below:

Ask students to reflect on the video, first by writing in their journals or in pairs, and then in the larger group. Ask them to consider some or all of these questions:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings about the video?
  • What does the video tell us about how Covid-19 impacts already vulnerable groups?
  • What does the video say about the unequal risk that Covid-19 presents?
  • The video is called “None of Us Are Safe Until All of Us Are Safe.” What do you think that means?

Share with students:

World-wide Covid-19 vaccination is the most likely way out of the current pandemic. And we need to move quickly now that the virus is mutating.  That’s a concern because these new mutations are more transmissible variants of Covid-19 and current vaccinations might not provide protection.  So why is lowering transmission of the virus key?

According to  Sci Tech Daily,

“A drop in transmission rates means fewer infections. Less virus replication leads to fewer opportunities for the virus to evolve in humans. With less opportunity to mutate, the evolution of the virus slows and there is a lower risk of new variants.

The medical community needs to make a big push and get as many people vaccinated and thus protected as possible. If not, the virus will continue to grow in large numbers of people and produce new variants.”

If such new variants spread, Covid will cause even more illness and death among people around the globe.

But of course it’s not just the medical community that we should be calling on for this big push. Pharmaceutical companies and governments have an important role to play as well.

This is why many people around the world are now calling for a “people’s vaccine.”

Amnesty International writes on Twitter that “Nine out of ten people in poor countries are going to miss out on a #Covid19 vaccine next year. Meanwhile, rich countries have enough to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over. We must have a #PeoplesVaccine for everyone, everywhere.”

Ask your students what, if anything, they know about this people’s vaccine. Think about the name “people’s vaccine." What might it be about?

Video: A People's Vaccine

Show students the second Amnesty International video below:

Ask students to reflect on the video, first by writing in their journals or in pairs, and then in the larger group, considering some or all of these questions:

  • What are their thoughts and feelings about the video?
  • What does the video say about a “people’s vaccine” versus a “profit vaccine”?
  • Who are these Covid-19 survivors calling on?
  • What do they want pharmaceutical corporations to do?  To what end?

Oxfam Blog Post: Three Excerpts

Split your class into three smaller groups, asking each group to take one of the excerpts below to read and discuss, using the reflection questions below each excerpt. Then students will come back to the full group and present the key points from their discussion one after the other. 

Alternatively, have all students read all excerpts one after the other with a discussion in between, guided by the reflection questions below each excerpt.

Oxfam Excerpt 1: Big Pharma and Rich Governments

“Governments around the world — especially wealthier countries home to top pharma companies — have a duty to do everything they possibly can to ensure that any successful medicines or vaccines are made available to all, especially those most in need, now and in the future. Government leadership is central to making Covid-19 vaccines and medicines a global public good. Yet, it’s on pharmaceutical companies to play their part. Many are working to develop these lifesaving innovations and have made some important overtures toward the goal of affordable and fair access to all.

This life-saving work must continue, but we cannot allow Big Pharma to further exacerbate the inequality crisis that Covid-19 has laid bare. This pandemic feeds on inequality, killing the poor and the historically disadvantaged at higher rates than the rich and privileged.

Big Pharma’s “business as usual” model is to make billions off taxpayer-funded research, charge sky-high prices, and funnel profits to wealthy investors. In the midst of a pandemic, that would mean luxury for the few and disaster for the many.

Our response to the virus must break this cycle of inequality. To prevent the Covid pandemic from becoming an inequality pandemic, any medicines or vaccines that pharmaceutical companies develop must be made free to all, and they must be fairly and equitably available to all those people most in need throughout the world.”


Reflect on the excerpt by addressing some or all of the following questions:

  • What does the excerpt say about the duty of rich governments in particular?
  • What does it say about the part big pharma has to play?
  • What does it say about what is truly needed for this life saving work to continue equitably?
  • What are your thoughts and feelings about all this?

Oxfam Excerpt 2: Human rights, not property rights

More than 170 world leaders — including the heads of state of South Africa, Pakistan, Senegal, and Ghana — have issued a call for a “people’s vaccine” in the run-up to the World Health Assembly [in June 2020] …. They demand that all Covid vaccines, treatments and tests be patent-free, mass produced, distributed fairly and made available to all people, in all countries, free of charge.

Meanwhile, Oxfam has calculated that the cost to develop and distribute a vaccine — $25 billion, according to the Gates Foundation — could be covered by the profit earned by the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies — in just four months.

We must take steps now to prevent private companies from charging prices that would block most of humanity from accessing life-saving medicines, and we must ensure that low and middle-income countries do not end up at the back of the line for drugs developed by corporations headquartered in the Global North. …

When essential services — like education and health-care — are too expensive, research shows households often prioritize the needs of male family members. If Covid-19 medicines or vaccines are rationed, rather than widely available, we know who will lose out — women and girls.

It’s no secret that women are the real heroes of sustaining our public health infrastructure. Women make up 70% of healthcare workers and the grand majority of those caring for infected loved ones recovering at home. We must prioritize their access to tests, treatments, and vaccines to ensure that everyone gets the care they need.


Reflect on the excerpt by addressing some or all of the following questions:

  • What does the excerpt say about what 170 leaders demanded in the summer of 2020?
  • How does Oxfam explain how the People’s Vaccine can be funded?
  • [How will women and girls likely be impacted by decisions made around the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine?]
  • What are your thoughts and feelings about all this?

Oxfam Excerpt 3: Break the Covid monopoly

While some non-pharma companies have committed to the “Open Covid Pledge” to share patents and intellectual property during the pandemic, the most profitable pharma companies continue to insist on retaining monopoly control over their vaccines and medicines.

Monopoly control could prevent countries and other companies from collaborating to massively scale up production worldwide to meet demand. Johnson and Johnson for example, can by its own estimates only supply its Covid-19 vaccine to a small fraction of the world’s population by the end of 2021.

If the goal is mass production of safe and effective vaccines, we need as many factories producing as fast as possible — without the need to ask for permission from large pharmaceutical corporations. 

[There is] no time for me first nationalism. Once vaccines or treatments are developed, there is a high risk that rich people and rich governments will outbid poorer people and poorer nations, forcing their way to the front of the queue as they did in the scramble for other essential medical supplies such as tests, personal protective equipment and oxygen.

Rather than prioritizing those most in need, some companies seem to be prioritizing specific countries and people.


Reflect on the excerpt by addressing some or all of the following questions:

  • What does the excerpt say about who has and who hasn’t committed to the Open Covid Pledge to share patents and intellectual property during the pandemic?
  • What does the excerpt say about a massive scale up in production to meet demand?
  • What does the excerpt say about rich countries versus poor countries and how pharmaceutical companies are responding?
  • What does Oxfam propose as the solution to worldwide-production, distribution and accessibility of Covid-19 vaccine?
  • What is “me first nationalism”?
  • What are your thoughts and feelings about all this?


Invite one of your students to read the following statement by Sonya Renee Taylor from her Instagram account. If needed, have a second student read it once more. Have students sit with it for a little bit.

Then, based on this quote, invite students to think about a reflection, connection, or addition they’d like to share based on today’s lesson.

If you’re remote, ask students to drop it in the chat and ask someone to read what’s in the chat out loud.  If you’re in person, send the imaginary talking piece around, inviting all voices into the space.