Global disparities and COVID-19 vaccinations
After successful clinical trials, Margaret Keenan of the United Kingdom received the first-ever COVID-19 vaccination, and the world optimistically envisioned a pandemic-free future. Many countries have returned to normalcy, and a gradual post-pandemic transition has been possible due to accelerated vaccine rollouts. In the US and the UK, herd immunity is not just a mythical goal anymore.
However, the pandemic now seems to be split between countries with access to vaccinations and those without. A glimpse at the current statistics reveals the growing disparity in the rollout of vaccines. High-income countries continue to make headlines and set new vaccination benchmarks. While they prepare for the administration of COVID-19 booster shots, many in low-income countries still lack access to first doses.
By early 2021, the UK had ordered 376 million vaccine doses, which is more than five times its population. Similarly, Canada had procured 362 million doses, amounting to 9.6 doses per person. The EU and the US had access to 1.6 and 1.2 billion doses, respectively. On the other hand, in Africa, a mere 6 per cent of the total population has been fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Chad, Haiti, Afghanistan and Congo are only a few names in an extensive list of nations scrambling for first doses.
It is clear that vaccines continue to flow freely to rich countries, leaving developing countries behind, helpless in the grip of COVID-19. This disparity, unquestionably, will have dire ramifications for the future of the pandemic. How has this growing inequality come to be? Why do statistics of vaccination rates in low-income countries paint such a bleak picture?
The Problem: Supply and Demand
Wealthy nations including the US, Canada, Japan, the EU bloc, and the UK have stockpiled vaccine doses. By the end of this year, they will possess a surplus of one billion doses. By hoarding vaccines, rich countries have for so long enjoyed a monopoly over the jabs.
In a purely self-serving move, their governments signed agreements with pharmaceutical companies to acquire surpluses of doses. Through these agreements, wealthy nations receive vaccines before they are distributed to other countries. Vaccine nationalism, as this has been labelled, has been condemned by the director-general of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Dr Tedros, calling the vaccine inequity a “catastrophic moral failure”, has urged for a more unified approach in fighting the pandemic.
For example, by obtaining surplus doses, the UK has been able to reach commendable vaccination targets. However, these are counterproductive measures to tackle the global issue of the pandemic, with the majority of the world’s population still suffering from an abject deficiency of doses.
Seizing this opportunity, China and Russia have engaged in vaccine diplomacy by providing supplies to countries in Africa, Latin America and some parts of Asia. Through this, they aim to strengthen diplomatic ties, increase their geopolitical influence, and exert soft power. In light of the ‘me-first’ policies of the US and other western countries, China and Russia have emerged as cooperative allies.
The developed countries were denounced for disregarding global solidarity, but pharmaceutical giants are equally culpable. Amnesty International has criticised big pharma, especially the six top vaccine manufacturers, for favouring wealthy nations. The rights group stated that the vaccine developers have fallen short of upholding their human rights responsibilities.
Adding to the shortage issue, many in Sub-Saharan Africa are concerned about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Vaccine scepticism has been intensified by the spread of misinformation on social media. It is also prevalent because of their mistrust of government representatives and institutions. In the Caribbean and Latin America, inoculation is viewed negatively, and chiefly as something undesirable. This attitude of vaccine hesitancy has been maintained because health authorities have failed to educate the population on the benefits of vaccination.
The Solution: A Collective Approach
In an appeal to fairness, the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros, called for a moratorium on booster shots until 10 per cent of the population in every country has been vaccinated. Furthermore, COVAX, which is the UN-supported global vaccine sharing scheme, aims to provide vaccination doses to 92 low-income countries this year. World leaders from the G7 countries have pledged to donate one billion vaccines to middle and low-income countries. Similarly, the world’s twenty largest economies, comprising the G20, have pledged to vaccinate 70 per cent of the world’s population by next year. Australia will provide 60 million vaccine doses, especially to its neighbouring countries.
Seemingly, significant strides are being taken towards correcting the situation. However, in many cases, the donations have been delayed and been made in small quantities. The substandard health infrastructure of recipient countries has further impeded progress. Experts predict that, at this rate, low-income countries will reach a 70 per cent vaccination rate only in 2030. In terms of the future of the pandemic, this is extremely disconcerting. If the virus is not eradicated globally, it will mutate; accordingly, diminishing the efficiency of vaccines. The current two-paced recovery can also cause disruptions in global supply chains that can lead to substantial economic losses. The destabilisation of already impoverished communities is also a real possibility.
The inequitable distribution of vaccines was largely caused by developed countries’ self-seeking manoeuvres of buying surplus doses. This has prompted questions about their moral obligations towards their less developed counterparts. The dearth of vaccinations has singularly affected poor and developing nations. If wealthy nations fail to rectify the situation, the fragile global progress in defeating COVID-19 can come to a standstill. The threats posed by vaccine disparities can greatly undermine global recovery. Ultimately, the global nature of this pandemic demands global action.
Sameera Pillai is a Bachelor of Journalism and Communications graduate from the University of New South Wales. Her interests include human rights, climate change and sustainability, and gender issues.