Skip to main content

How ‘Vax Live’ Came Together (And Exceeded Its Goals)

In the wake of Vax Live, Global Citizen Hugh Evans spoke to Billboard about how the massive event came together.

For a decade, Global Citizen has worked with celebrities and world leaders to help rally on-the-ground activism and private sector donations to work toward ending extreme poverty. When the pandemic put nearly everything on planet earth on hold last March, Global Citizen quickly pivoted to help tackle the urgent threat, while still highlighting the inequalities that are exacerbated during a global health crisis.

With Vax Live: The Concert to Reunite the World airing on Saturday (May 8), Global Citizen tapped host Selena Gomez and performers including Jennifer Lopez, Foo Fighters, J Balvin, Eddie Vedder and H.E.R. for the first massive, COVID-compliant concert in the United States. In the audience were 27,000 fully vaccinated healthcare workers, whom Gomez saluted: “You set an example for all of us, both in how you stayed on the job and that we need to get vaccinated as soon as possible.”


Raising more than $302 million in commitments and tracking more than 26 million donations of vaccine doses (exceeding its initial goals), Vax Live aims to get the world back on track as well as plan for a better future. “If we’re truly going to build back better,” Global Citizen CEO Hugh Evans asks Billboard over the phone, “What does that actually look like?”

In the wake of Vax Live, Evans spoke to Billboard about everything from teaming up with Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, to how Selena Gomez’s activism secured commitments from world leaders. And as Global Citizen looks to refocus our attention on issues “that have been neglected as a result of everyone focusing on COVID,” Evans teases what to expect from this September’s Global Citizen Live event, which takes a few cues from the legendary Live Aid concert from 1985.

Last year, we spoke after the One World concert. Walk me through what Global Citizen has been busy with since then.

Since One World: Together at Home we’ve had a very busy year. We immediately received a phone call after that from Bloomberg and partnered up with the European Commission for a strategy to help fund the vaccine. And that coincided with Global Goal: United for Our Future — The Concert, a TV special on NBC that had The Rock, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, and a range of amazing artists. We also secured money from all the G7 nations – over $1.5 billion was committed and that went to help fund the Moderna vaccine as well as the AstraZeneca and helped purchase vaccines through COVAX for the world’s poorest nations. After that, leading into the U.S. election we partnered with Alicia Keys, America Ferrera and Kerry Washington to drive our Every Vote Counts campaign. And then John Legend finished the year with us hosting the annual Global Citizen Prize and we were able to honor John and so many other extraordinary global citizens for their work. It’s been a sprint.

We knew coming to this year the issue of vaccine equity would be such a huge challenge as well as, frankly, the issue of vaccine uptake. Eight percent of people in the U.S. are considering not getting their second dose, 26% of people are not taking the vaccine at all, so we knew we had to fight these twin issues to drive our campaign. We partnered with the Ad Council and other extraordinary partners to bring Vax Live. We’ve seen the private sector rally with huge commitments from Verizon through to Cisco to Procter and Gamble. We’ve also seen governments step up. President Biden, Vice President Harris and the First Lady agreed to participate, His Holiness the Pope as well as Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, have all agreed to help drive the campaign and that’s what’s enabled us to help achieve our goal.

I want to ask about a few of the names. Prince Harry and Meghan, how did their involvement come about?

We reached out to Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and said we were hoping they would help us, alongside Selena Gomez as host, champion these issues. Immediately Meghan said, “We’re so passionate about this, we would love to encourage the private sector to step up.” Prince Harry was also so passionate about the issue of vaccine misinformation on social media and wanted to highlight that. Both of them were true leaders. It was just such a natural fit and they were extraordinary states people to work with. They’re willing to convene roundtables privately and write public letters, one of which we published on Global Citizen, and on Archie’s second birthday (May 6), when people often give gifts to the Royal Family around the time of birthdays, they decided they wanted those gifts to go to vaccines this year. The level of commitment they have to this cause is a testament to them as human beings and to the urgency of the mission.


And Selena Gomez as host was a great fit.

Selena Gomez has been on stage for Global Citizen in the past; in fact, she’s been a long-term UNICEF supporter and UNICEF are part of the frontline delivery of vaccines on the ground. So when we reached out to Selena and asked her if she could host she said “yes” straightaway. On social media, her tweets she’s been sending to world leaders got direct responses. This is the sort of advocacy Global Citizen loves, where an artist uses the power of their social media platform alongside Global Citizen’s platform to encourage world leaders to respond. Spain’s Prime Minister Sánchez responded and committed 7.5 million doses for Latin America. New Zealand responded over the weekend, even the White House responded and that’s what’s led to so many of the commitments they’ve been making. President Macron of France, Chuck Robbins, the incredible CEO of Cisco, committed $5 million and so did Marc Pritchard of P&G and Coke also got on board. It’s a snowball effect created by the power of her advocacy. For me, I feel extremely thankful. You can see through this campaign everyone has put the full weight of their platforms behind this urgent issue and that’s why we’re starting to see policy change. In the short term, we need doses donated, and I’m thrilled those are starting to be donated from G7 and G20 nations. This campaign has helped push nations and the private sector step up in ways we hadn’t seen.

Were you at Vax Live in person? If so, what was it like seeing live music after so long?

I was there in person. It was surreal. You know what was the coolest? There were 27,000 fully vaccinated healthcare workers who were rocking away. I posted some photos on my Instagram of the healthcare workers, the doctors and nurses on the frontline, enjoying it themselves. That makes me the proudest. They’ve been working so hard over the last 12 months to keep us all safe, and they also are symbolic of the 27 million healthcare workers globally who haven’t yet had access to the vaccine. It’s really not right that myself, a 38-year-old male here in the United States, should have access to the vaccine before a heroic healthcare worker on the frontline in Africa. That’s simply because of the U.S.’s purchasing power. We need to treat this as a public good and end the pandemic together. These vaccines are publicly subsidized. It’s right for pharmaceutical companies at this juncture to be donating doses. They should all be doing better deals with the COVAX facility, they should all be supportive of a temporary halt on intellectual property rights associated with it because that’s the only way we beat the pandemic. When Jonas Salk invented the vaccine for polio, someone asked him, “Are you going to patent it?” He said, “can you patent the sun?” His reference there was the idea, “how on earth can you patent something that gives all of us life, like the sun?” That’s the way we need to approach the end of the pandemic. It’s been a disastrous thing for the whole planet, and we need to use our shared values to actually see some hope and light at the end of the tunnel by being as generous as we can.


What’s your advice for the average person who wants to help out?

If you want to take action, go to Global Citizen.org and start calling on Moderna to commit doses right away. Start calling on all the major pharmaceutical companies and world leaders. I’m a huge believer in the power of digital democracy globally. I’ve heard the European Union and others are reconsidering their position in light of the White House’s big step forward, so I think there’s real hope, but we need citizens to act quickly. We don’t usually drive donations — we drive activism — but this is a rare occasion where if people want to donate doses, they can donate doses directly through the COVAX facility. But if they’d rather use their voice, then use your voice, send tweets, use the Global Citizen platform to call on world leaders to create immediate action.

What’s next for Global Citizen?

Earlier this year we launched our recovery plan for the world, partially launched with the World Health Organization, about how the world can recover post-COVID and what needs to happen. This September our dream is to reunite the whole planet with Global Citizen Live in the spirit of Live Aid. We want to focus on the broader issues of recovery, whether that’s the environmental negotiations taking place around Paris Climate Change Agreement this October or the issues of food and education that have been neglected as a result of everyone focusing on COVID. It’s hard when the world needs to focus on one thing – everyone knows we can’t move forward until we end the pandemic – but all these other issues have been neglected so we need to refocus the world’s energy this September and say “okay, if we’re truly going to build back better, what does that actually look like?” And Global Citizen is going to be leading the charge around education, food security and the environment and equity.