The wrath of the Covid-19 pandemic has brought the whole world to a grinding halt, disrupting economies and leaving several communities vulnerable to various repercussions. The catastrophic pandemic that originated last year has not yet come to a standstill. Scientists and public health researchers have left no stone unturned in developing a vaccine to tackle the virus and indeed their efforts have paid off so far. However, a grave impediment exists that poses a threat to mass inoculation globally, i.e., vaccine inequality.
Amid the mass vaccination occurring worldwide, the issue of vaccine inequality is clearly evident. First of all, it is essential to acknowledge the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic is not only about a health crisis. The pandemic has jeopardised lives and livelihoods and worsened poverty and inequalities. While the pandemic was a major concern of 2020, the issue of vaccine inequality should be the foremost concern of 2021. Developed countries are hoarding excessive amounts of Covid-19 vaccines more than they need, making the poorer countries susceptible to further waves of the virus.
The United Kingdom has ordered 400 million vaccines for its population of 6.65 million people; enough to vaccinate the entire population over five times (2). On the contrary, 130 countries have not yet received a single dose of the Covid-19 vaccine (3). According to a Lancet report, 10% of the world's population has finished 70% of all vaccines available in 2021. The federal government of Canada drew criticism for allegedly acquiring vaccines from multiple sources. It has finalised a series of deals with pharmaceutical companies to procure its own supply alongside the entitlement of obtaining vaccines from the Covax program, a scheme created to fairly distribute vaccines, prioritising middle and lower-income countries. While countries such as the U.S. have provided at least a single dose to more than 45.2 million people, frontline workers in sub-Saharan Africa are yet to have access to inoculations. The global immunisation process not only portrays an unequal and discriminative setting but also highlights the fact that mass immunisation schemes, for instance, Covax, is essential but not sufficient.
Countries like Israel, the UAE, the UK and the US are among the highest-ranked nations to have provided the most jabs to their population. Israel has vaccinated a staggering 98.85 (per 100) people whereas the latter three have inoculated 62.73, 32.33 and 24.95 (per 100) people respectively. While developed countries are promptly looking forward to completing their vaccination program, the other half of the world is still falling behind in their effort to procure
vaccines and start immunisation. The Economic Intelligence Unit has stated that 84 of the world's poorest countries may not have the resources to enable widespread vaccinations until 2024. Some countries in Latin America are purchasing Sinovac which has a 50% efficacy, as they could not secure any other vaccines. The pandemic was so severe in Argentina that Sputnik V was approved by its government without any significant data regarding the Phase-3 trials. Health inequalities have always been evident throughout the world. However, the aftermath of vaccine inequality can have cataclysmic effects on international trade and globalisation, affecting not just lower- and middle-income countries but also developing nations.
Even amid these dire times, some nations are forging diplomatic relations with their regional peers to strengthen ties, enhance their supremacy and secure global status through vaccine diplomacy. In early February, half a million of the Chinese Sinopharm vaccine were sent to Pakistan along with Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Nepal, Zimbabwe and 13 other countries. Likewise, India has also been donating AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine to its regional neighbours, depicting their reputation as a supplier of affordable and accessible vaccines to the global south and challenging China's pursuit of regional dominance. Meanwhile, Israel has decided to pay Russia to send the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine to the Syrian government as part of a prisoner exchange deal.
Behind the scenes of vaccine diplomacy and inequality, there are growing concerns, whether the pandemic will wholly conclude or not. Some countries of Africa and Latin America such as Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela have not yet started immunisation. Vaccinating only the developed nations and leaving behind the poorer ones will result in large-scale infrastructural damage upon global education, health, economics and society. The International Chamber of Commerce predicts that the global economy may forego up to 9.2 trillion dollars if governments across the world fail to arrive at a common ground in vaccine procurement. Experts are ceaselessly warning us about the aftermath of such disparities and at this point in time, there is no crucial task other than taking actions to eradicate these discrepancies. This is where intergovernmental organisations, heads of state and multinational corporations have a decisive role to play.
First and foremost, global initiatives must be undertaken to ensure worldwide immunisation. The Covax scheme, initiated by WHO, GAVI and CEPI of providing 2 billion vaccines within 2021, undeniably deserves recognition. The scheme is proving to be effective as Ghana became the first country to receive vaccines under the Covax program. Likewise, Afghanistan, Haiti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Congo are likely to receive vaccines among the lower-income countries.
Secondly, access to some intellectual property rights for the coronavirus vaccine is necessary for poorer countries to manufacture accessible and affordable vaccines locally. Vaccine patents, proposed by India and South Africa and supported by 100 other countries, have been put forward for a discussion in the World Trade Organization (WTO). However, governments are split on the issue, where lower- and middle-income countries support and high-income countries oppose the proposal. This is highly inconsiderate on part of the opposing countries as restricting the intellectual property rights of the vaccine will in no way end the pandemic in the near future.
Thirdly, multinational corporations can step up to fund mass vaccination campaigns. In South Africa, a leading mobile network, MTN has announced a donation of 25 million US dollars to the African Union's vaccination program, which aims to inoculate 60 percent of the continent's population. Public/private partnerships will not only help to accelerate the rate of mass vaccinations programs but can also cover large scale immunisations within a shorter time frame.
Last and most importantly, ending the pandemic is a moral responsibility on part of every citizen of the world. The head of the WHO has already warned against 'a moral catastrophic failure' resulting from a 'me-first approach' by countries and manufacturers jeopardising the equitable access to these lifesaving treatments. Such failure will be paid with the lives and livelihoods of people unable to access these treatments. To combat these catastrophes, it is our moral obligation to vaccinate every person in the world. We have to remember that no one is safe until everyone is vaccinated.
Shankha Saha is a final year student in Sociology Discipline, Khulna University