The South African government has aptly warned of a coming global ‘vaccine apartheid’ as wealthy countries have bought up vast vaccine supplies, leaving poorer ones to cope with extreme scarcity.
By Nazarul Islam
Our world is pretty much on the brink of failing a critical test: the one measuring whether the international community is willing, or able to end a global pandemic without leaving anyone behind. Wealthy countries have bought up vast vaccine supplies, leaving poorer ones to cope with extreme scarcity.
An international initiative known as the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX) aims to distribute vaccines widely and equitably, but it is short of funds. At best, COVAX will reach only a small portion of the populations of low-income countries this year. The South African government has aptly warned of a coming global ‘vaccine apartheid’.
Perhaps there is still time to manage this in an alternate way. Wealthy countries have a moral duty to help distribute vaccines. This is also in their economic interest. Instead of hoarding supplies, these countries should reallocate doses to low- and middle-income countries and provide funding to ensure that the most vulnerable populations—including minorities and stateless people—and, ultimately, entire populations are immunized, regardless of income.
Political leaders have faced strong pressures to prioritize vaccination of their own populations. The impulse to care first for one’s own people can be morally justified but only within limits. All people enjoy an equal worth, with similar aspirations for health and productivity.
The equitable distribution of vaccines—as well as tests and therapies—is an ethical and humanitarian imperative. It is also the most efficient way to address or reverse the crises that the coronavirus pandemic has set in motion, many of which will soon enough affect all nations, whether they have vaccine supplies or not.
While the ongoing pandemic has persisted, progress in other areas of global health, such as immunization of children and eradication of polio, has sharply reversed. Pakistan is yet to come out clean, in its success of the allocated program for eradication of polio.
Because of COVID-19, nearly 1.5 million more people were projected to die from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in 2020. And this number is near that of the world’s COVID-19 deaths in the same period. The number of people experiencing or at risk of acute hunger has doubled in the last year, and the World Bank estimates that the pandemic has thrust 100 million people into extreme poverty—a fate that another 50 million are expected to suffer by the end of this year.
Women and minor girls confront a greater risk of gender-based violence, including rape, child marriage, and sex slavery, during the pandemic. And school closings and inaccessible remote learning have left 463 million children around the world, without formal education.
Only by vaccinating the world’s populations can these destabilizing and immiserating trends be reversed or brought to heel. Large clusters of disease in low-income countries risk reseeding the pandemic in high-income countries—and such unchecked spread will hinder the global economic recovery and undermine the security of governments worldwide.
To distribute enough vaccines, drugs, and tests to developing countries will cost an estimated $24 billion in 2021. And, that is a significant sum at a time when even high-income economies have been battered. But the investment will bring benefits that far outstrip the cost.
The International Monetary Fund has projected that worldwide vaccination would add nearly $9.0 trillion to the global economy by 2025—conversely, the RAND Corporation has projected that for each year that low-income countries cannot access vaccines, the combined GDP of high-income countries would fall by $100 billion.
Leaders of wealthy democracies must look beyond today, or their decisions will haunt them tomorrow.
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