YONELA DIKO: Vaccinationalism: No country is safe if everyone isn't vaccinated
US former president Barack Obama once said: "It doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick". He constantly reminded America that their safety was directly linked to the safety of everyone else in the world. His work with world leaders towards a nuclear-free world, on the Paris Climate Accord or International Agreement with Iran was an acknowledgment that there was not enough money or army that could guarantee one country's safety if the rest of the world was not safe. This was, of course, something the country's most recent ex-leader Donald Trump was not smart enough to appreciate with his America First - if not America only - mentality.
There is a worrying trend today among the wealthy countries in the battle against the global pandemic, particularly on vaccine research and acquisition. Every country is looking out for itself without much thought about other nations with less means, as if one state can be safe if its people are vaccinated and the rest of the world is not. World Health Organization's (WHO) director general, Tedros Adhanom, calls this state race on vaccine "vaccinationalism" He says it's self-defeating and will only delay global recovery.
In early December, it was reported that there were nine potential vaccines being tracked. From the very start, rich countries invested in their own individual research, without collaboration and sharing of notes given the global nature of the coronavirus.
There was the UK with Pfizer and BioNTech, the US with Moderna mRNA-1273, then you had Russia and China with
Sputnik V and Sinopharm-made vaccines, among others. Over and above their work, rich countries also ordered and paid for 7.85 million doses of whichever vaccine comes out first. It's almost been like the old space race: no cooperation, no sharing of expertise, just a contest to the top.
Fair and even distribution
As this race to research, manufacture and distribute vaccines began, the question of even and fair global distribution of vaccines was immediately a concern. But there was hope that, given the global nature of the threat, there was a moral obligation for any available doses of vaccine to be administered evenly throughout the world to protect all of citizens.
But it was not to be. Rich countries immediately defaulted to self preservation first and prioritised their own populations. Even more difficult for poor countries who are mostly in hot climates was the understanding that they did not have the ultra-cold storage requirements for the medicine and would therefore be dependent on richer states or, more appropriately, on the WHO, which is largely supported by developed countries.
It seems even in the midst of an existential threat to the entire human race, countries and their pharmaceutical multinationals have decided profit is still king. Just a few days ago, Tedros lamented these disparities, where out of 39 million doses administered globally by 18 January 2021, poorer countries only received 25 doses. Twenty-five doses for a whole country. It baffles the mind. It seems poor countries would have to wait until the entire western population was vaccinated.
In a more perfect world, in a more moral and upright world, all countries would be getting vaccines for the same group of prioritised people at the same time. All healthcare workers and elderly people would be protected across the world at the same time. This is something the WHO, too, would have preferred.
As early as February 2020, The WHO formed the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (Covax) facility in order to ensure fair access to the vaccine by all countries. Endorsed by Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE), Covax was created to ensure that vaccine access was based on human principles, giving access to the most vulnerable and most at risk both globally and within counties.
To counter this vaccinationalism, which in the era of Trump was an ever-present danger, the Covax programme was to pull global resources and make global acquisition of the vaccine for all countries for fair distribution. Vaccinationalism, however, means that Covax is now competing with richer and more desperate countries who have tried to secure vaccines independently, directly from the manufacturers, at the expense of worldwide distribution, making national drug approval and leaving WHO with no choice but to secure doses quickly too, irrespective of how they feel about these vaccines.
According to Covax, they are ready for distribution beginning February. They say they have secured two billion doses and plan to secure 5 billion more. This means all the countries that believe or depend on WHO for vaccination have not yet received their batch of vaccination.
The break away of countries from the global acquisition and distribution of the vaccines just shows how much globalisation is a fantastic idea until countries are threatened. The WHO had all these great plans, ensuring that all countries received doses of vaccine according to their population and that the initial target would be 20% of populations in all countries. But at this rate, the WHO is becoming an entity for poor countries only.
In November 2020, delivering a speech at the annual ministerial meeting of the Group of 77 - comprised of developing countries and China - in the Republic of Guyana, UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres said, "We are at a historic moment as we face the greatest test of global solidarity in generations".
Guterres acknowledged that developing countries have been dealing with eradicating poverty and hunger, inequality, as well as low development - and now face the heavy yoke of a pandemic.
But he saw an opportunity in this period to increase global access to healthcare, digital connectivity and education.
But this too was not to be. Even the new US President, Joe Biden, has a goal to vaccinate 100 million Americans in 100 days without much thought about vaccine access for the rest of the the world. At least in his case, he has immediately rejoined the WHO and this means Covax will get a new funding injection to enable wider access of the vaccine.
The way the world has handled the vaccine makes a mockery of all the "building back better" and "building back fairer" slogans we have seen from world leaders. It seems nothing is going to change and nothing is going to be learnt from this virus.
South Africa can make a change on the continent by making sure that as South Africa gets vaccinated, all of Africa receives the vaccine at the same time, at the very least for the most vulnerable members of the continent.
Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on @yonela_diko.
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