Marianna Vardinoyannis, a Greek humanitarian, urges the world to provide free access to coronavirus treatments for all.
  • Marianna Vardinoyannis was awarded the 2020 Mandela Prize by the United Nations. 
  • She is being recognized for her humanitarian work, including expanding access to health care for children. 
  • Vardinoyannis says the world needs to work together to offer all people free vaccines and treatments for COVID-19. 

Marianna Vardinoyannis cried when the Greek foreign ministry notified her that she was one of two people awarded the 2020 Mandela Prize by the United Nations.

“I could never have imagined that I would, one day, receive such an immense honor and feel deeply moved and touched,” Vardinoyannis told Karma in an email interview. “It was a recognition of the struggle of hundreds of people around the world whose rights are violated and cannot speak out against violence, against deprivation of food, safety, health and education or against the deprivation of social and political rights.”

Vardinoyannis — who shared the news with her shipping magnate husband Vardis, and their five grown children — was honored on July 20 in a virtual UN ceremony for her humanitarian work expanding access to healthcare for children and her pro-democracy advocacy.

President of the United Nations General Assembly Tijjani Muhammad-Bande told Karma that this year’s Mandela Prize winners, Vardinoyannis and Dr. Morissanda Kouyaté, are deserving of the honor.

“This is in the tradition of excellence in public service,” he said. “And those selected have shown that rich or poor you can contribute to the community in significant ways.”

Born in Athens in the late 1930s, Vardinoyannis lived through a period where the nation that birthed democracy struggled under a dictatorship. Her husband, then a young naval officer, was jailed and exiled with his family due to his opposition to the regime, which ruled from 1967 to 1974. The government tortured and imprisoned many other citizens. The experience shaped Vardinoyannis’ views on the importance of freedom.

She now sees worrisome signs of democracy “fatigue” and the rise of autocratic regimes around the world and urges people to continue defending their right to vote and influence policy.

“What leaders should do in order to reinforce our democracies is listen — listen and remedy mistakes, wrongdoings, injustice,” Vardinoyannis told Karma. “We need to create a new social contract respecting the needs of people. We live in a constantly changing world and we need to adapt to these new circumstances by establishing social justice and equality.”

She has worked for much of her life for many causes such as building-out health care for children. Her mission has not been easy.

Children with cancer were dying in Greece in the 1990s due to the lack of specialized healthcare in the country. Vardinoyannis was moved by the efforts of parents that tried to raise money to take their children abroad for treatment.

She founded an organization called “ELPIDA,” which means hope in Greek, to help the stricken families. The organization went on to build the country’s first and only oncology hospital to treat childhood cancer and the first bone marrow transplant unit. The facility has handled 150.000 hospitalizations and admitted and treated thousands of children from Greece as well as from other Mediterranean and Balkan countries.

When she tried to build a guesthouse for sick children in a neighborhood in Athens, residents, fearful that cancer is contagious, filed a lawsuit to stop the construction. Vardinoyannis had to engage in a door-to-door campaign to educate people that cancer is not a communicable disease. She says some of her worst opponents now support ELPIDA’s work and frequently donate toys and food for the patients.

“What I learnt from this experience is that people are afraid of the unknown; that ignorance creates fear and fear creates prejudice,” she said. “ Our only weapon against prejudice is knowledge…acquired through education.”

Her actions have been recognized over the years. 

She was honored with the Chevalier of the Legion d’ Honneur of the French Republic in 2006 and received an award from Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights organization in 2015. She’s currently a goodwill ambassador for UNESCO, a specialized organ associated with the advocacy for education.

Still, Vardinoyannis treasures the latest recognition, named after Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically-elected president. He is credited with forming a diverse and inclusive nation and dismantling a racist system of governance.

Vardinoyannis says the pandemic has shed light on the flaws in governance and priorities that have exacerbated the global health crisis. She says the world needs to make a plan to ensure manufacturing capacity for the vaccine and recruit more health workers to support global vaccination efforts.

Recently, UNAIDS and Oxfam led a campaign to urge world leaders and the business community to provide free COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostics, tests and treatments to all people. Vardinoyannis along with 140 other activists, experts and leaders signed the petition.

“Now, more than ever governments need to work together and share scientific knowledge, data and patents regarding COVID-19,” she said. “Nobody should be left behind. Because the biggest lesson that we learnt from the pandemic is that our lives depend on one another.”