Omicron and the vaccine inequity

Omicron and the vaccine inequity

It is time WHO and UN ensure poorer countries receive their share of vaccines

Covax, which the UN organisations used to advertise their efforts on social media, was supposed to be the marketplace to regulate vaccine distribution to poor countries. It has, however, failed in the face of enough doses to go around. Credit: AFP Photo

As the fear of a new coronavirus variant, Omicron, grips us and the countries begin to close their borders, it's time to evaluate the globally unequal distribution of available vaccines. In the US, where I live, one can simply walk into a pharmacy and ask to be vaccinated without payment or insurance proof. Wealthy nations like the US are finding it challenging to get their citizens vaccinated and offer several incentives like a chance to win a million dollars at the top of the pyramid. On the other end, we have countries like the Congo and Burundi, where only 0.1 per cent of their population has been vaccinated with at least one dose. It became a rude joke earlier in the year when the US "gifted" 80 vials of the Pfizer vaccine to Trinidad and Tobago.

At the time of writing this article, 4.24 billion globally have received at least one dose of the Covid19 vaccine, representing 53.5 per cent of the world population. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 63.87 per cent (or one in two people) in the high-income countries are now vaccinated with at least one dose. This statistic is 7.46 per cent (or one in 13 people) when it comes to low-income countries. Who, then, is responsible for managing the vaccine distribution globally, ensuring the poorer countries receive their share of the vaccine? The WHO or UN-led consortium comes to mind. At every major anniversary of the UN, the public intellectuals talk about the much-touted UN reforms and how the world's largest bureaucracy might become more instrumental in changing common citizens' lives. This might be that moment.

We have not seen any such initiative from the UN or its allied agencies. We do, however, have a dashboard maintained by the UNDP and WHO, which acknowledges that "Covid-19 vaccine inequity will have a lasting and profound impact on socio-economic recovery in low and lower-middle-income countries without urgent action to boost supply, share vaccines and ensure they're accessible to everyone now."

The vaccine inequity reflects the wealth distribution we have been confronted with for several decades now, if not more. The richer among us have an advantage that might be impossible to close in on. This holds even for the internal differences within countries – a case in point being Colombia, where 63 per cent of the city population is vaccinated while only 26 per cent of the countryside have received the vaccine.

Only five of the 54 African countries are slated to reach the 40 per cent vaccination targets that the WHO has set for by the end of 2021. These countries are confronted with a shortage of 2.2 billion syringes, according to UNICEF. These syringes are required for both Covid19 vaccines and routine vaccinations. Even the countries doing economically better than the rest, like Rwanda, Kenya, and South Africa, are reeling under this shortage. Long term self-sustaining solutions must be sought to rid the continent of this issue. Organisations like the UN and G20 must be held accountable for creating these solutions and not ask the world for additional funding should we face another pandemic in the next few years.

It sounds comical that, in contrast, their richer Northern counterparts like the US and Canada must convince their citizens about the need for vaccines. Africa has fully vaccinated 77 million people, a little over 6 per cent of the continent's population, as opposed to 70 per cent of the rich countries, who have fully vaccinated 40 per cent of their citizens. Less than two per cent of people have been vaccinated in 10 African nations.

Vaccine leader Moderna has announced that it would spend $500 million to set up a vaccine producing plant in Africa, possibly saving the continent from the scramble for vaccines it has suffered from during the ongoing pandemic. Traditionally, the countries have depended on western donors and the UN to help them gain access to vaccinations. Covax, which the UN organisations used to advertise their efforts on social media, was supposed to be the marketplace to regulate vaccine distribution to poor countries. It has, however, failed in the face of enough doses to go around.

Global non-governmental organisations, such as the UN, G20, BRICS, GAVI, The Gates Foundation, and others, must come together to devise a strategy rollout that is built with the community networks in poorer countries. This supply chain strategy must include better practices from the corporate players to reach the most underprivileged. The wealthier, more privileged nations must share their knowledge to make these parts of the world self-sufficient for any foreseeable future. It almost sounds like an impossible joke that 870 million doses are being hoarded by the rich nations, over 500 million in the US alone. This is probably symptomatic of the world we live in and are doing little to change.

It's time we all spoke up, a little more, at every opportunity we get. None of us will ever be fully done with this once-in-a-century pandemic unless everyone is vaccinated. If we don't, very soon, the WHO might be scrambling for a new name for the next variant.

(The author is a former Chief of Communications with UNICEF in New York, where he worked for more than a decade)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.


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