The tragedy of vaccine apartheid
No one is safe unless everyone is safe.” This is the mantra we repeatedly hear, underlining the need for universal vaccinations to fight the pandemic.
And yet, the world is facing a tragically bizarre situation where healthy teenagers in downtown Los Angeles or Dubai may end up receiving their COVID-19 vaccinations way ahead of besieged doctors and extremely vulnerable elderly people across much of the developing world.
If the world were an airplane, it seems that only first-class passengers are being given oxygen masks and seat belts. The rest will have to haggle with flight attendants for their share while in the air.
A month after major pharmaceutical companies confirmed the effectiveness of their COVID-19 vaccines, it became increasingly clear that what we are facing is nothing short of “vaccine apartheid.” The world’s richest G7 industrialized nations and a number of smaller developed nations quickly gobbled up at least 3.1 billion doses of reputable vaccines developed by the likes of Pfizer and AstraZeneca. Just over 10 percent of the world’s population secured more than half of total quality vaccines.
This vicious, shameless form of “my country first” mindset was fully on display in recent weeks, when the rich club of European Union nations began threatening their recently estranged cousin Great Britain over vaccine supplies. Watching the United States and Britain swiftly launching massive vaccination programs, the EU threatened vaccine export controls and, in a potential violation of the recently finalized Brexit deal, even invoked the highly sensitive issue of Irish border restrictions.
The seeming trigger for the diplomatic spat was the announcement by AstraZeneca that its delivery of vaccines would be delayed due to production-related issues. The company also clarified that it couldn’t divert its supplies unless it fulfilled its earlier contract with Britain, where much of the vaccines are produced. The EU was unhappy, since its post-Brexit neighbor has been receiving EU-made Pfizer and BioNTech vaccines.
Billions of denizens in the developing world, still desperately wondering about their own share of vaccines, were witnessing an ugly fight between their privileged peers at the front of the line over who gets most of the best vaccines early on. An EU official later admitted that the noxious episode was “simply and plainly a blunder.”
Meanwhile, the likes of China and Russia have been quick to take advantage of the hypocrisies of the West by offering joint-development schemes for their own versions of not-so-first-rate COVID-19 vaccines. Anyone familiar with the basics of geopolitics would be fully aware that there is no “free lunch” with these eastern superpowers.
Incompetent and corrupt governments in the developing world have made the situation far worse than it should have been. The Economist Intelligence Unit projects that more efficiently-run nations such as Vietnam and Thailand are expected to achieve a semblance of “herd immunity” by mid-2022, while populist-led Philippines or Pakistan will not achieve this until end of 2023, if not later.
Apparently, the Duterte administration didn’t even bother to ensure that proper indemnification laws are in place before receiving vaccines, thus the further delays in the imports of quality vaccines. Nor has it sufficiently explained its reliance on far more expensive and less effective Chinese vaccines than on more proven and affordable counterparts.
To much of the world, the scramble for vaccines among the rich nations is worse than a diplomatic “blunder.” It is an absolute moral catastrophe. It evokes dark memories of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, which claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. The vaccine was developed in just seven months, but rich nations gobbled up almost the entire supply, only giving up a tiny portion when the World Health Organization appealed for donations.
Vaccine apartheid isn’t only morally repugnant, but also self-destructive. A study by the International Chamber of Commerce showed that rich countries could lose up to $4.5 trillion in the absence of a well-coordinated universal vaccination program, which is indispensable to the full revival of global trade and investment.
Even worse, the more vaccine rollouts are concentrated in few rich regions, the greater the probability of more dangerous variants springing up in poorer regions, as we have seen with the South African and Brazilian variants of COVID-19. In short, global solidarity, not vaccine nationalism, is our one and only way out of this pandemic.
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