By Christina Lee Knauss, Catholic News Service

As the fight against COVID-19 continues in the United States, the nation’s leaders also must not forget the ongoing struggle with the pandemic in poorer nations, particularly in Africa.

That’s the message that leaders from interdenominational groups around the country are trying to get across to Congress. Among them is Sam Brownback, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.

In an opinion piece for The Hill, a Washington-based online news outlet, and in other forums, he has recently called on Congress to lend its support for African nations to receive additional funding from the International Monetary Fund.

The funds, Brownback said, would come at no cost to U.S. taxpayers and are desperately needed by nations so they can bolster vaccination efforts, purchase needed health care equipment, shore up struggling health care systems and bolster their economies.

He noted the funds are especially critical because only about 3% of people in Africa have been vaccinated against COVID-19 and cases there continue to rise.

Brownback, who also served as governor of Kansas, as a congressman and U.S. senator, said his Catholic faith is a strong reason why he is working to persuade U.S. lawmakers to support freeing up the additional IMF funds.

“I think this is something we have to do,” Brownback said in an Oct. 8 interview with Catholic News Service. “We’re the largest economy in the world and we have been incredibly blessed. There are people in Africa who desperately need help right now.”

The additional funding for Africa that Brownback and others are calling for would come through a special financial tool known as Special Drawing Rights, or SDRs. These are global reserve funds created by the IMF that can be used to assist nations facing economic downturns.

In June, world leaders from the Group of Seven agreed to allocate $650 billion in SDRs for developing nations to battle the pandemic, and the IMF allocated the money at the end of August.

Several developing nations have already revealed plans on how they will use the SDRs released in August to bolster health care systems and fuel economic recovery, but still more funds are needed to help the battle against the pandemic in Africa, Brownback said.

He is joining others in the global relief community who are asking Congress to ramp up support for an additional allocation of SDRs to help developing nations, especially those in Africa, who are struggling both to meet health care needs and fix economies that were harmed by lockdowns that forced businesses to shut down.

“Special drawing rights are a multifaceted solution,” Brownback said. “They allow the economies of these countries a real bridge through this downturn by giving them access to hard currencies from strong countries.

“In the U.S., we’ve been able to pour trillions of dollars into our economy to prop it up during the pandemic, but these countries do not have that kind of capacity. This is a way to get them access to hard currency so they can make it through this crisis.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Jubilee USA, an interfaith religious development group, sent a letter to the Biden administration in February supporting the use of SDRs to help developing nations in their battle against COVID-19.

Statistics released recently by global relief groups show just how much help is needed around Africa. Although the continent has recorded more than 8.3 million COVID-19 cases, there is still a severe vaccine shortage, according to Project HOPE, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization that assists health ministries worldwide.

The NGO’s statistics note that only 2% of the 5.7 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine distributed worldwide have gone to Africa.

Money is not only needed to increase vaccination efforts, but also to help with providing basic health care needs exacerbated by the pandemic.

Brownback cited Cyril Rampaphosa, president of South Africa, who in a statement said that his nation needs the IMF funds not only to purchase COVID-19 vaccines, but also to buy supplies, like testing kits and oxygen, and to help fund the overtaxed health system.

Brownback noted South Africa’s example is mirrored in the experiences of many of the African continent’s 53 other nations. In some places, he said, hospitals have been forced to turn patients away because they do not have enough oxygen ports or beds available.

This is far from the first time in recent years that SDRs have been used to help struggling nations. Brownback noted bipartisan U.S. support for special drawing rights helped African nations and other developing countries worldwide during the global economic crisis in 2008.

Even in today’s divisive political arena where the two parties rarely agree on anything, Brownback said supporting help for struggling nations is something people on both sides of the aisle can easily embrace.

He said he has seen firsthand how effective help from the U.S. could be in combating deadly diseases through his work with the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR.

Launched in 2003, the plan has received bipartisan support and helped to save an estimated 20 million lives worldwide, many of them in Africa.

“PEPFAR is an example of the U.S. playing a role in saving lives, and we are facing a similar situation with COVID-19,” Brownback said. “Supporting Special Drawing Rights now is the right thing to do.”