The third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic is gaining weight worldwide, with many countries reporting higher-than-ever numbers of infections and hospitalizations. The good news is that in countries where vaccines are available there are generally lower mortality rates, stating that at the community level, vaccines work. The bad news is that with a conspiracy of international politics, profit and domestic complacency, the vast majority of the world’s population remains unvaccinated. As of July 2021, only 25.3 percent of the world’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and of the 3.4 billion doses that have been administered worldwide, only one percent is been administered in low-income countries.
We have fallen freely into an era of unprecedented inequality, thanks in large part to the few decisions taken by the world’s political class. The world was already deeply unequal with poor countries bearing the brunt of the global disease burden with scarce resources. But despite claims that this pandemic would be a great equalizer, it turns out to be an accelerator of inequality. The wealth of global billionaires has grown by 45 percent or about $ 1.3 trillion since the first COVID-19 cases were registered in Wuhan province in China in December 2019, yet, according to UN estimates Together, global unemployment will rise to its highest levels in history with more than 200 million new cases as a direct result of the pandemic.
All this makes the current global inequality of vaccines particularly threatening. Billions of lives are in danger because rich countries are on the way to making vaccines more freely available, threatening to aggravate already exacerbating inequalities. In contrast, 69 per cent of Canada’s population of 38 million received at least one dose of the vaccine while only 65,000 people in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (population 89 million) received at least one dose. Among them, U.S. pharmaceutical chains Walmart and CVS have sprayed at least 180,000 doses of vaccine – more than most African countries have administered. And the COVAX initiative, designed to make global access to vaccines fairer by coordinating countries to buy enough vaccines for 20 percent of their populations so that at least all health workers in the world can be vaccinated – is over of vaccines. COVAX has acquired most of its vaccines from India, but the “world’s vaccine factory” has introduced export controls after being hit by the third wave of COVID-19.
If countries like Haiti and Chad, which have not officially administered a single dose of any vaccine, do not quickly protect their front-line health workers, the risk is not only that those people will lose their lives, but that already weak health systems are collapsing. People have not stopped catching other diseases or need treatment for other things just because of COVID-19, and if vulnerable countries lose a critical mass of their medical professionals, this can cause a delay that will take generations to complete. win.
But it didn’t have to be that way. Since the beginning of the pandemic, poor countries have taken the tough political decisions necessary to keep the fire burning. Tight closures have kept hospitals low. But these public health measures have paralyzed the economy and led to epidemics of unemployment and hunger. Millions of migrant workers and day laborers lost their jobs because of often brutally enforced shutdowns but they bore the brunt because the promise was that it was a temporary situation designed to hold fire until a longer-term solution was found. . People are hungry, angry and frustrated but instead of working fast to make the medium-term solution that exists now more readily available, rich countries and the pharmaceutical industry that protects it play to their advantage.
Certainly, the lack of vaccines in some poor countries is in part a function of their poor domestic policies. In Kenya, Cameroon and South Africa, the pandemic response has been fueled by allegations of corruption and misappropriation of public funds. In September 2020, Kenya’s auditor general shared that the country had lost $ 2.3 million in a procurement scandal to the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA) that was to oversee the acquisition. of IPR in the country. In South Africa, the Minister of Health, Zweli Mkhize, was put on leave in June 2021 following a scandal involving the irregular award of communication contracts in support of the pandemic. Tanzania and Madagascar have had the misfortune of living under presidents who have either denied the existence of the disease or the usefulness of scientific treatments.
But these domestic failures in themselves do not explain the global inequality of outcomes when it comes to vaccines. First, even in Africa, these countries are higher. The majority of African countries have not had corruption scandals associated with their pandemic responses to date and have instead been faithfully, if sometimes slowly, attributing resources to the growing threat of the pandemic. For example, Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) received 600,000 doses of vaccine from COVAX. Initial intake of the vaccine has been slow due to great public hesitation, but despite the political uncertainty in the country created by the 2021 elections, the government has countered the misinformation and to date has vaccinated 850,000 people. In short, Cote D’Ivoire has used its COVAX allocation and then some, but now there are no more vaccines to buy.
More importantly, corruption in COVID-19 responses is not a purely African problem. In April 2021, international anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International found that one in five government contracts awarded by the UK government as part of its response to coronavirus contained “one or more red flags for corruption “. However, just under 68 per cent of adults in the UK are already vaccinated. In fact, according to the Lancet, the UK has secured five bilateral treatments for 270 million doses of vaccine against a population of 66 million, or enough for 225 per cent of its population. Yet the UK has also paid $ 98m for 27 million doses of vaccine from COVAX and in April 2021 received 500,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVAX. It is not enough to simply point to corruption as the reason why African countries do not have access to vaccines.
In fact, there is a global traffic congestion in the vaccine supply chain, with producers unable to keep up with global demand. To a large extent, this is because the rich countries of the West have broken an agreement to start with the vaccination of front-line health workers in the world before opening the vaccination to the general population. At an April conference on vaccine availability in Africa, Stephane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, told participants he had no reserve capacity – every time a box of vaccines is finished at the plant, it is immediately shipped for delivery. So what should we infer if, according to the company’s website, not a single drop of Modern vaccine has been available in a poor country? And what does it mean now that rich countries are talking about diverting a portion of this capacity toward the manufacture of reinforcements?
COVAX was to be a break for equity, an opportunity to give all countries in the world a chance to fight in the context of the anthem of global solidarity that was sung during the outbreak of the epidemic in the West. China has promised 110 million doses of its Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines to COVAX that should help, but not enough to fill the gap. The third wave is already here, and with new variants that could undermine the effectiveness of existing vaccines. We need a fair break, but in the medium term, the easiest way to alleviate this traffic congestion would be to make it possible for more countries to make vaccines. Cuba is leading the way by making its vaccine technology more freely available. Gamaleya (the manufacturer of the Sputnik vaccine) has also promised to share its technology with producers in Argentina. This is a big part of the multiplier strategy that African countries – and indeed many other countries in the world, including India – support. The waiver of patent rights would allow countries with productive capacity to copy formulas for vaccines without fear of punishment.
It is perfectly valid, and even crucial, to demand accountability from corrupt governments. National activists are already doing this because we cannot leave governments overwhelmed by theft and waste. But these demands will come to naught if rich countries seek to use charity as a buffer for injustice. We cannot ask our governments to reimburse spending towards the purchase of vaccines if there are no vaccines to buy. And we cannot save the life that is threatened at this time because of this third wave if we just wait for the wreckage that is expected to come long after the emergency landing.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.