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Edgar Aguilar: Vaccine Equity with La Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa in Honduras

In the final episode of Season 4, Edgar Aguilar, senior researcher with La Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa, or the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras joins us. Edgar shares how organizations and communities advocating for Covid-19 vaccine equity have resulted in increased vaccination rates in Honduras. Chris and Edgar also talk about running—(Edgar likes running to be present in the moment; Chris likes running to the fridge for pizza)—and how work toward increased integrity in the energy sector can help meet both immediate and long-term needs for people in Honduras. 

The following is a transcript of Season 4 Episode 5 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well hello friends. Welcome to another episode of Do Justice. My name is Chris Orme. I'm your host, and I'm excited today to be together with Edgar Aguilar. He is senior researcher at the civil society organization Asociación Para Una Sociedad Más Justa, or the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras. He has conducted and participated in research projects about health policy, human security, migration and energy regulation. He also assists in the development of advocacy campaigns in Honduras, like for the Covid vaccine equity movement. Edgar was also featured in a World Renew webinar where we talked about vaccine equity, and you can check that out on our Facebook channels. He is also the co-founder of Cultiva, an initiative that works to connect youth in rural areas of Honduras to opportunities for professional and personal development. We're really excited to have Edgar here. Edgar, thanks so much for joining us. How are you doing today?

Edgar: Hi, Chris, thank you for having me. I'm really glad to be here and to be participating in the Do Justice podcast. Looking ahead to our conversation.

Chris: Yeah, thanks so much for joining us. You know, I would really encourage those of our listeners who haven't yet seen that vaccine equity webinar to sort of—we’ll throw the link in the description of this episode because it was a great conversation. I just love how you came off in that conversation. I really just appreciate your way of communication. I want to get into a little bit about you, personally, before we dive too deep into the conversation. I learned that you're a runner, you like to run.

Edgar: Yeah, I like to occasionally exercise and I think running is one of my favorite ways to do that. 

Chris: Yeah. So, I mean, I run, but I'll run if I'm running to the kitchen to get a pizza, or if I'm running somewhere. I talk to runners and they talk about the runner's high, you know that sort of that endorphin kick, do you get to that level? Do you feel that level of just goodness when you're out there running? 

Edgar: Yeah, first I have to admit that my favorite runs are also to the kitchen, but I enjoy running outdoors. I think it's an easy sport. You just put some sneakers on and then go outside.

So I think it's one of those activities that I think brings me back to the present moment and it's just a good space to be quiet, find motivation, and to look at the surroundings too. Here in Tegucigalpa, I usually run around the place where I live, and I enjoy the view. Tegucigalpa is a hilly city so you can see the basilicas—we have one of the most well known Catholic temples—or if it's later at night or early in the morning, you see some of the other lights around the city. So I also like that: running outdoors and enjoying the surroundings. 

Chris: Yeah, I did a quick Google image search of it. And you just recently moved there right? Like this is a recent move for you?

Edgar. Yeah around four months. 

Chris: Okay, nice yeah I did a quick Google image search.

And it's sorry—help me with the pronunciation of the town again, or the city?

Edgar: Tegucigalpa. 

Chris: Yes, yes. Beautiful, beautiful spot like it's just, it's gorgeous. You know I would probably spend more time outside if I was there too. So I'm glad and I think one of the things to touch on when we talk about even running or exercise or self care—I know a lot of folks who are in the arena of justice work—and self care is such an important thing. You need time to recharge your batteries and find things that give you life, so that you can get back into the arena and fight the good fight. So, in that vein, Edgar, tell us a little bit about your work with ASJ.

Edgar: Yeah, first just really quick on what you just said. I usually like combining running with other mindfulness practices. So maybe after a run, I would do a little meditation or read a devotional. And I think that, especially when we're working towards, hopefully, a more just society, it's really important to find ways where you find that hope. Sometimes, you know, bringing systemic changes or working towards that can be maybe disappointing at first when you don't see changes happening that fast. So I really like just what you said about being always willing, and putting the energy to contemplate everything around us and what brings us hope and joy.

But yeah. I work as a researcher at ASJ. I also help with organizing some advocacy campaigns. I've been working mostly on research and advocacy work around corruption in the electricity sector.

I've also this year been doing some work on coordinating vaccine equity. And recently, I have been part of a team with whom we're working on a study on violence and migration.

And I think working as a researcher represents a very interesting and important pillar of advocacy. I think advocacy is based both on connections to people and community but also on research.

When we understand systems well, we can diagnose what is happening and propose ideas for change. So I think that's kind of where my work comes in at an organization like ASJ.

Chris: You mentioned the work that you've done in vaccine equity, making sure that vaccines are available and distributed in a just way in Honduras. And we know that advocacy—its ongoing work. It's not just like a one and done kind of thing. Yet it's often helpful for folks who are just starting to get involved, who are sort of in the beginning phases of their advocacy journey, to see examples of where it made a difference. Can you tell us about a time that you saw or are currently seeing how policy change, and advocacy, made a difference in people's lives in Honduras?

Edgar: Yeah, definitely. So vaccine equity—actually I think last time we talked Chris, when we had that event on vaccine equity, Honduras had around 3.7% of the population vaccinated, with at least one dose. At that time, the United States already had around 54.4%, so the inequity was fully latent and evident. So at that time I think we were “okay, how is this going to happen? How are people and especially the most vulnerable going to get vaccinated?”

Since that time to now, ASJ for example, we have coordinated with more than 190 organizations and we wrote a letter to the Biden administration before they started giving donations of vaccines. And then a couple weeks after that, Honduras was one of the first countries in—actually the first country in Latin America that received, as a nation, of 3 million doses of vaccines. And then since then on, the vaccination process has picked up. And I think that's one of the examples when I see people coming together—as civil society organizations, churches—coming together and then looking at a need and speaking up, and then something happening in response to that.

Besides that, through our organization ASJ, we have also been supporting, overseeing and monitoring how vaccines are distributed once they are in the country. Especially we wanted the recommendations of the experts to be followed, so that those that were at a higher risk were vaccinated first. And that's again, one more time where I see that being there, being that presence, the representation of the community that is asking for things to be done the right way—it's brought up also more accountability and a higher compliance to these recommendations for a more fair vaccine distribution process.

Chris: Honduras recently had a general election. It was in November. I just want to know: how closely tied to the election was the vaccine distribution or vaccine equity issue? Was it part of the platform? Was it a concern for folks? Was your work involved in some sort of advocacy with the policymakers in that space?

Edgar: Yeah, I think that with the elections that just happened and a new government, I think overall just the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed even more different challenges that the health system in general presents in Honduras.

Yeah, so I think it's—so we've been observant and actually not just focusing on how the vaccines themselves have been helping to overcome the pandemic but also what are other challenges that have been more clearly evident? So that from there we can give further recommendations for a new government on what sustainable, long-term changes they need to do on the health system.

For example, one of the things that was evident was the lack of staff in the hospital, the lack of doctors, lack of nurses. And through the pandemic some of those were hired for this process. But we also have been speaking up in some ways and asking for policy changes so that more doctors, more nurses are hired long term, and not just to handle the emergency, as it has become a clear need for better attention to the Honduran people.

Chris: I want to read you this quote; it's from a blog that’s on the ASJ website. It was written by ASJ co-founder Joanne Van Engen back in October. And she writes this—she says “at ASJ, we come alongside those whose lives are most difficult and try to meet their needs—both immediate things like new rooms and refrigerators—and longer term structural changes like good schools for their children, and a justice system that protects them when they are in danger.”

Edgar, I think, in general, it's pretty easy for Christians in North America to get excited about meeting people's immediate needs. We've talked a lot about that on the show in several conversations. But in your own work with ASJ, how do you see meeting people's immediate needs going hand in hand with working for the systemic change in Honduras? How you work for both the the short term and the long term, sort of hard work of of advocacy and policy change?

Edgar: Yes, I see that most of the time, those two do not have to go opposite to each other. I think most times in the work of justice that's really well informed, actually it's able to help people where they are and with their needs today, while also working toward systemic change. I think I have more—two more examples that I would like to mention. One is about the work that we do in the electricity sector. So we have, through our research, exposed the high levels of loss because of energy theft that is actually done by big users. Also, other losses that happened through lack of payment and actually not following through making those who owe, pay, and in general just bad contracting processes where the state owned electricity utility company just hires Generation, for example, or contracts Generation Energy at a higher cost than it should. And then this results in lack of funds in the institution to, for example, expand access to electricity or to a good quality service. And furthermore, this also increases the costs that Hondurans are paying for their electricity bill, and usually those that are impacted the most are those that already struggle to pay their bills.

So as we do our research and as we present solutions based on what we find, we want people to pay a fair bill and to have a good quality service today, but we also are looking for “what are the processes that need to change in the institution and how these services are provided?” So that even though we fix something right now, we won’t have, in two years, that crisis again. And I think that's one of the important reminders for me. Because I think on the other hand—you know how you were talking about, maybe some people trying at times to work towards a solution that is in the moment, that would fix something at the moment? I think sometimes I find myself on the other side of the spectrum. I think “Okay, what is this that I'm doing?” What does this represent?”

I think sometimes that work that is systemic and more long term—it's harder to see the results so you need to see something that kind of tells you that what you're doing is actually making a difference.

For example, in the study of violence and aggression—and this is another example I had been working with for about a year. And we did a literature review. We did an extant data analysis to see what are the factors that put people at higher risk to migrate. And now we're coming up with a tool that will help us assess better where are people—who are the people with a higher risk so that they can be aided into making a decision not because of harsh circumstances. But then if they decide to migrate it will be because of other other factors, not because they are pretty much forced to do so.

So, throughout this process I’m like “what is this for?” in some ways. But then I'm reminded at the end—I think throughout that the tool we will be recommending, research and practitioners can further work toward developing solutions that reduce the suffering and the pressure that several factors place on people, like I said, leaving them only with two options: staying put and risking violence, victimization or migrating to find a safer home.

So, yeah, through these long processes, I think we also need to be reminded that these efforts—at the end of the day—are to help people live a better quality of life and a more dignified life. So I think what is very important is to always take a step back, before taking action. And then really figuring out how can my engagement in trying to promote justice help those in need today while also contributing to a long term sustainable change for good.

Chris: It's a powerful image. And you know I have a follow up question that's kind of—maybe it's hard to, and I apologize if it is—but we we get to talk to a lot of great people, and we hear a lot of these common threads. And I always mean to ask this question: how do you, personally, Edgar, how do you keep the people that you are called to serve at the center of your focus? How do you not get overwhelmed by the bigness of the issues? Because sometimes it's really easy just to see like “well I'm looking at poverty, so it's poverty that I'm dealing with.” Or, you know, “I'm looking at, immigration reform, so it's policy and it’s immigration.” But we're talking about people: how do you keep people at the center of what you're doing?

Edgar: Yeah, I think, actually, the first thing that comes to my mind right now is to acknowledge that I'm also one more human. I cannot do it all. I cannot fix it all. I just need to be part of the community where I am, and in that space, work with those around me to pursue changes in what is affecting that part.

I definitely see how—and I have experienced how—overwhelming it can be when maybe one thinks “I can’t do too much.” But I think it starts with acknowledging that “maybe I can just do a little part” and for that I need to do that with those around me. And if it's a situation that I'm not familiar with, I think it's more about giving that platform and then just being a support for those that really know what they're going through and what are the needs that they have.

And I think it's very important to remember to start where we are, or to start with the opportunities to serve or to do justice that we have at the moment. I think sometimes too we get—it's happened to me where I think of an issue and maybe it’s too far away. And it'll be even hard for me to get involved. Actually a lot of energy can go into that, like “how do I fix that?” when I might have an opportunity at home in my neighborhood, at my workplace to pursue a change that will bring more justice.

Chris: Yeah, I love that. Thanks man. To be forward looking I think is good. There's some responsibility in that but sometimes—I resonate with that so much. I feel the same way. I'll look to the end of where I want to be, like “this is the result I want so let's you know let's jump to that.” But maybe there's maybe there's something closer, more proximate to me that will be, not more easily done, but demands immediate attention, I guess. 

Edgar: Yes, and I still want to, of course, encourage people who are listening to this and even myself to also not be indifferent to issues happening in other places  or more out of our control.

I think it's really important that we learn, that we try to get involved. But I think, again, bringing it back to the running that we talked at the beginning—you know that space for me, something about taking a step back contemplating—I think that can be applied to how we want to work also in pursuing justice. It's really important. And I connect it also to doing research, like “how do we find and grasp all this information?” And then I think when we take a more informed decision where we have also given a space to to really see and process in some ways everything going around us, our work, our involvement might be more effective in pursuing the changes that we want to see, and that God is calling us to work towards for a better world.

Chris: Edgar, you had a chance this year to be on the panel of judges for ASJ’s youth essay contest. What was that experience like? What stood out to you and what are young people writing about? I'm fascinated. Maybe even tell us a little bit: what were the parameters of the contest? I'd love to hear what wisdom are our young people pouring out?

Edgar: Yeah, no, that was definitely a very fun experience and also a really great learning experience. First of all, I think what came up to me and that stood out was the variety of topics that young people are writing about. They were writing from racism, to poverty, to gender discrimination. It was very interesting to read all the topics. And yes some of the parameters were, you know, the sort of solutions that they presented and how they presented the problem too.

And I think among the judges it just sparked conversation about how to further encourage and equip young people to develop their ideas and act on them, especially when it comes to justice.

So, I think it was a very interesting exercise and I am kind of eager in some ways for more opportunities to read about how young people see justice and the solutions that they propose.

Chris: Yeah, such a cool experience. I mean I have teenage kids—and I know I don't look old enough to have teenage kids. Thank you for saying that; it's very nice of you to say that—But yeah, I've got teenage kids and it amazes me, even at the dinner table where our conversations go. Like my daughter, she's very plugged into  climate justice and she understands and so much more even then—I'll say then even than I understand now—and I think it's important to continue to give opportunities, not only for that generation to speak but for us to listen. I think that's key.

Edgar, we're coming to the end here and I just want to ask another question. In the midst of all of the work that you do—we've talked about the bigness of it all, we've talked about how you find peace and reprieve and fuel yourself up but—what gives you hope? What gives you hope to keep going in this work? 

Edgar: Yes.I think that, seeing what past generations have achieved, or learning about that and in some ways, trusting that we're really getting to a better place and believing in that gives me hope.

And I also think small—I will call them maybe, small wins that I see for a more just society.

Those give me hope too.

And this actually just reminded me of a concept of hope that I recently read in one of these daily devotionals that I'm reading, and I'll share it here: it says “hope in gospel faith is not just a vague feeling that things will work out. For it is evident that things will not just work out. Rather, hope is the conviction, against a great deal of data, that God is tenacious and persistent in overcoming the deadliness of the world, that God intends joy and peace.” This is by Walter Brueggemann. 

So, I like this concept. And actually something I just read last Sunday—when thinking about hope, not thinking only about this maybe abstract or vague feeling, but really, knowing. First, I liked how that first example talked about this great deal of data, because I think that's how we feel most of the time. There's so much going on, but knowing that through that messiness, God is still tenacious and persistent in finding a way to overcome those challenges and to bring us to that peaceful and joyful place that he has intended.

Chris: Wow. So our guest today has been Edgar Aguilar. He’s a senior researcher at the civil society organization Asociación Para Una Sociedad Más Justa, or Association for a More Just Society in Honduras. We’ll make sure to put the link to the organization—you can check that out in the bio of this episode. Edgar, we really appreciate your time. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Edgar: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.


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