Vaccine seflishness of western governments shows how they view the developing world
Only three per cent of the entire population of Africa have been fully vaccinated, with only 12 African countries so far hitting the WHO’s target of vaccinating 10 per cent of the population by the end of September. The pandemic will never end until we treat the pandemic as a truly global issue – vaccine supplies must improve globally, or richer nations will continue to reap the benefits of vaccines while poorer nations suffer.
A selfish scramble
In the scramble to increase vaccination rates, Western nations seem to be stubbornly ignoring the bigger picture. “In the vast majority of developing countries vaccination rates barely reach one per cent of the population” explains Rossella Miccio, President of Emergency, an Italian non-profit organisation that works to open hospitals in areas affected by poverty or wars across the globe.
Rossella has been an active member of Emergency for over 17 years, she first helped develop humanitarian programmes in Afghanistan and then worked as a coordinator of wider Humanitarian programs. She has since worked with authorities in countries like Sudan and Uganda to increase access to healthcare.
Rossella laments the lack of focus that Western nations have given towards equitable global vaccine distribution. As she notes, vaccination of non-western countries has been almost entirely outsourced to the Covax project run by the WHO, Gavi and Cepi. “Covax was initially created with the worthy aim of having a tool to guarantee access to the vaccines to nations who did not have the economic power to buy them”.
Yet something went wrong, and vaccination rates in poorer countries of the world remain incredibly low, “this is a huge problem,” says Rosella, “both for them, as they are not protected against the virus, and for the whole global community, as the lack of protection gives space for new variants to develop”.
Emergency, together with Oxfam, denounced the fact that there has been “no concrete step forward” for global vaccine distribution during the recent G7 summit. Although new production sites have been approved, the system is still reliant upon donations by richer countries.
The problem of global distribution is more than just about quantity. “The vast majority of the vaccines that have been distributed thanks to Covax are those produced by the Serum institute in India with the AstraZeneca license,” explains Rosella, “the availability of this one and only vaccine – which in the US and Italy is ill-advised for young people – is tricky and could cause problems in countries with such young populations."
“The message we are giving is that we consider citizens of these nations as second class”
Compounding these issues, most health systems in developing countries were already in dangerous situations before the pandemic. “We are talking about Afghanistan, where an active and violent war has only just stopped, or Sudan where endemic diseases are already common, in many of these areas healthcare systems were already severely stretched”.
Following repeated waves of coronavirus, deaths and contagions are booming in the developing world. Many of these healthcare systems are not equipped to deal with the multifaceted crisis of Covid and other infectious diseases, as Rosella explains: “Finding DPIs, diagnostic test and medicines is equally difficult, which contributes to the further circulation of the virus. ”
Uganda for instance, where Emergency recently opened a children’s surgical hospital, underwent a Covid curfew that lasted more than 40 days. “Uganda has an informal economy,” says Rosella, “meaning that if people are not able to go to work, they just won’t get paid. ” All countries that do not have the luxury of self-sufficient economies have been badly hit by closures, leading to a dramatic increase in poverty. In 2020, global rates of extreme poverty grew for the first time in 20 years.
The most recent wave of coronavirus placed considerabel strain upon Uganda’s healthcare system, “for instance, a hospital in Entebbe, near where Emergency just opened a surgical centre, admitted just Covid patients for more than a month, meaning in that area there were no structures available to take care of the non-Covid-related conditions that continued to exist in large numbers”.
Limited capacity for comprehensive data collection makes it difficult to calculate the actual impact on the increase both in mortality and poverty. “If the US registered a year-and-a-half decrease in the average life expectancy after the pandemic, it is scary to think about what we will find out about these countries.
“All nations must take global solutions into proper consideration and start looking at the pandemic for what it is – a worldwide issue – and stop finding solutions that are working just for us”.
Forcing equitable distribution
Rosella stresses that a meaningful change in mindset is required amongst Western governments. “It is clear to everyone that we either all get to walk away from this or no one does, and still rich counties are competing to get as many vaccine doses and diagnostic tests as possible, which has forced most of the world to share the few crumbs that were left.
“Not even during a global pandemic has it been possible to put in place a system that would facilitate equitable vaccine distribution”. The WHO did launch the Covid-19 Technology Access Pull, an initiative designed to encourage all vaccine producing companies to share patents, technology and know-how, but the voluntary nature of the project meant its impact was non-existent.
"It seems we are de facto hostages to a handful of pharma companies that own the intellectual property of these vaccines. Over $8 billion of public funds were given to Pfizer and Moderna alone to develop these vaccines, which have not become a public good, but are still in the exclusive hands of these companies, who determine their cost, production and distribution”.
As Rosella outlines, the current system is non-transparent. “Up to date we still do not know what the true costs of the research were, nor what the cost of the production is”. In consequence of the pandemic, “there are nine new billionaires just in the pharmaceutical industry, in the face of millions of new poor”. The solution, according to Miccio, “would be a suspension of the intellectual property, with the obligation to share the technology and know-how to enable more companies to produce the vaccine”.
The pandemic, as tragic as it is, is giving us an opportunity to reconsider our relationships to each other, both as people and as region, countries, and communities. Now more than ever, we are in an advantageous position to rethink the system we live in, to make it more equal for all. It is an opportunity we should take while we can.
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