By Elias Norin
“Where you live should not determine whether you live, and global solidarity is central to saving lives and protecting the economy.” These are the words of eight world leaders, including Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Sweden’s Stefan Löfvén. In a jointly written opinion piece from July last year, they stressed the importance of an equitable distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine. It might be suitable, then, to take a look at the current situation, seven months later.
While high-income countries make up 16 percent of the world’s population, they have secured 60 percent of all vaccine doses, according to Duke Global Health Institute. Many affluent countries, like Canada, have already pre-purchased doses that can ensure their entire population to be vaccinated – three times over. By contrast, almost no African country has so far been able to sign contracts that cover more than five percent of its population. This hoarding of vaccines by the rich has led to worrying estimates predicting many low-income countries potentially having to wait as late as 2024 for widespread vaccine access, according to Reuters. Meanwhile, it looks like most rich countries will have vaccinated almost their entire population by the end of this year.
Now what could be the consequences of this unequal distribution, one might ask.
First of all, it may result in far more deaths that could have been prevented. A recent study by Northeastern University estimated that an unequal distribution could result in nearly twice as many deaths as if the vaccine would be distributed proportionally.
Second, leaving large parts of the world outside the rollout would increase the risk of the virus mutating, which in the worst case could lead to vaccine resistance. In other words, what we are seeing is quite likely to prolong the pandemic.
In addition to these concerns, it’s also a terrible economic investment for the world as a whole. According to a report made by Rand Corporation, unequal vaccine distribution could cost the global economy $1.2 trillion a year in GDP terms.
Fortunately, a multilateral plan for equal distribution already exists. Covax is a WHO-backed alliance that works towards the goal of equal access to the Covid-19 vaccine for all countries. The plan is to encourage as many countries as possible to sign onto the Covax initiative and donate money, which allows the alliance to buy vaccines and distribute them proportionally. More than 190 economies have signed the initiative and donated to the scheme.
However, significant obstacles still remain. The same countries that have signed the initiative are signing their own bilateral contracts with the vaccine manufacturers, limiting the supply and driving up prices, to WHO’s frustration. Moreover, the Covax-programme is underfunded and needs another $2 billion in order to reach its aim of vaccinating at least 20 percent of the population in 92 poor countries by the end of 2021. And even if the alliance is able to fulfill this aim, it’s far from enough to reach the desired level of immunity in a country. Estimates have shown that up to 80 percent of the population would have to be vaccinated to ensure herd immunity.
Some defenders of vaccine hoarding point to promises made by countries such as Canada to donate excess doses to poorer countries. However, almost none of these countries have revealed whether they will wait to donate their doses until after their entire populations are vaccinated. Until then, millions of poor people would continue to risk their lives, awaiting the benevolence of the wealthy part of the world.
There are a few encouraging exceptions. Norway and India have pledged to share their doses with poorer countries in parallel to their own rollout. Dag-Inge Ulstein, Minister of International Development in Norway, told the Telegraph: “We cannot wait until every citizen in rich countries is vaccinated before we start vaccinating people in the low-income countries.”
While these are positive developments, critical questions still remain unanswered. Why are world leaders not questioned more about their unwillingness to aid the Global South? Where are the journalists that draw attention to the hypocrisy of committing to the Covax initiative while stocking vaccines? When it matters the most, many states look to their own interests at the cost of global solidarity, even when acting on that solidarity appears to be the best choice for everyone in the long-run. We’ve seen it before with other epidemics, such as when rich countries stockpiled the swine flu vaccine, and we’re witnessing similar shortsightedness in regard to the climate crisis.
In times like these, we are reminded of the importance of global solidarity – but also how difficult it is to achieve that ideal. Easy as it is to blame decision-makers’ pursuit of narrow self-interest, I have little doubt that the reason they’re not being heavily criticized is because most of us are unwilling to make the sacrifices that are needed. How willing are we really to delay our nation’s rollout of the vaccine to benefit others? How willing are we to cut down on flying or make other sacrifices for the climate to benefit poorer nations and future generations?
With all due respect for national sovereignty and the fact that governments have an expectancy to look after their own citizens, it is obvious that vaccine nationalism is globally self-destructive. Global leaders should follow in Norway’s footsteps and make the same smart, globally-minded decision that is supported by public health experts. And perhaps in the foreseeable future, we could view life-saving vaccines as a public good that ought to be distributed equitably, instead of a market good going out to the highest bidder.
Illustration: Christina Yavorchuk
Elias Norin studies political science at Uppsala University. He is a big fan of sitting at cafés on a Sunday afternoon, and enjoys a game of football almost as much as an intriguing conversation with a good friend. In terms of writing, his favorite topics are human behavior and lifestyle, preferably related to politics.