Shreyas Ernest Isaac
Research Intern, Jindal Centre for the Global South,
O.P Jindal Global University, India.
The COVID-19 Pandemic has undoubtedly been one of the hardest challenges that countries have had to face in recent human memory. If there is one word which has brought much hope to all of us in the last few years, it has to be the word ‘vaccine’. Scientists and doctors across the world rushed to manufacture a vaccine against the COVID-19 virus. The world collectively took a sigh of relief when the news that a vaccine to prevent COVID-19 was discovered. Vaccines do two broad things for us- firstly, they save lives and secondly, they save livelihoods. Countries that have a higher vaccine rate would be able to open up their economies and lift COVID-19 restrictions sooner, which will allow them to bring their economy back on track faster. Countries in the Global North were the first countries to get access to the vaccine, mainly because they either had the manufacturing capabilities to produce vaccines or they had the purchasing power to procure vaccines from other countries. However, for millions of people in low-income countries, the vaccine is still a far fledged dream. While countries in the developed world continue to give booster doses to their citizens, there still remain people who have not yet gotten the first dose of the vaccine as of March 2022, around two years since the World Health Organization declared the SARS-Covid-19 Virus outbreak as a pandemic. Only around 14.4 % of all people in low-income countries have received the first dose of the vaccine as of 23rd March 2022 (Mathieu et al., 2021), which is in extreme opposite to many countries where citizens are eligible for a third and sometimes even fourth shot of the vaccine. Three billion people are still waiting for their first dose of the COVID-19 Vaccine as of 23rd March 2022 (“Vaccine Equity and Speed – UNDP Data Futures Platform”, 2022)
It is also important here to note that the COVID-19 pandemic brought public health into the center of discourse. When people in a country fall sick during a pandemic, there is no doubt that there will be major challenges that the public health sector will face. In low-income countries, the challenges that the pandemic will bring upon the public health sector will surely be much more aggressive, considering the fact that the health care sector in many low-income countries already face a whole range of issues like inadequate number of trained medial staff, lack of financial resources etc. (Hsiao & Heller, 2007) In simple terms, the COVID-19 pandemic has overburdened systems which were already burdened.
The consequences of not vaccinating low-income countries are major and need to be addressed. For starters, public health experts have constantly argued that in order for the pandemic to fully end, the vaccine roll out will need to be equitable and inclusive, and that the vaccine needs to become a global public good (Hunter et al., 2022). Some experts say that there are chances that the virus can mutate in an area where the vaccination rates are low, although the data is still unclear, the risk undoubtedly remains (Juno & Wheatley, 2021) New variants emerging from areas which have low vaccination rates can then spread across the world, subsequently causing more havoc. It is therefore not just in the interest of those living in low-income countries to get vaccinated. But it is also in the whole world’s interest that the vaccine rollout is more equitable and inclusive. We need to constantly remind ourselves that viruses and pandemics do recognize human made borders between countries. The next challenge comes with the issue of requiring antibodies. Countries will therefore have to give booster shots to their populations (Hunter et al., 2022), which means that the global demand for the vaccine will continue to increase. The crux of the debate here is quite clear- should richer countries who have access to vaccines continue to purchase more vaccines to give booster doses to their populations or should vulnerable people in low-income countries, who have not yet got even one dose of the vaccine be given priority? To answer this question, we need to listen to expert voices who point out that although antibodies do wane over time, booster shots need to be given only to vulnerable people in a society- immunocompromised citizens like those with chronic illness. The priority now should be on directing vaccine supply to low-income countries (Ryan, Swaminathan & Henao, 2022).
Low vaccination rates also means that countries will find it harder to bring back normalcy- schools will have to be shut down, economic activity will have to be put on hold, tourism will see a big dip, workers in the informal sector will face major issues, and eventually, economic inequality in the world will rise. Past pandemics have also proved that economic inequality increases after a pandemic (Furceri, Loungani, Ostry & Pizzuto, 2021). According to a joint news release by the UNDP, the WHO and the University of Oxford, if low-income countries had the same vaccine rates as developed countries, they could have added $38 billion to their GDP forecast for 2021. The end result of this cycle is that we have failed to achieve a world where there is peace and security for all human beings.
‘Ubuntu’ and the road ahead
The African philosophy of Ubuntu, literally translated to ‘I am because you are’, is a good metaphor to use here. The safety and happiness of people in low-income countries are connected to the happiness and wellbeing of all human beings across the world. I will be safe not because I went and got vaccinated, but I will be safe only when the most vulnerable members of our society too are vaccinated and protected against COVID-19. There is no doubt that vaccines are expensive to not just manufacture but also to transport and for rollout. Challenges like vaccine hesitancy, lack of medical staff, unavailability of cold storage infrastructure, patents and issues over export/import of raw material etc. only complicate things further. The international community ,however, has a moral obligation to ensure that vaccines are shared and equally distributed to lower income countries at an increased pace, . If the whole world wants to collectively heal from the pandemic and shift focus to other pressing issues like climate change, the only way forward is to have a more vaccinated world. I strongly believe that the case for a more inclusive vaccine rollout cannot be based on economic or political interests. The case for increasing the vaccine rollout in low-income countries needs to be based on morality and justice, it needs to be based on philosophy and ethics and above all, it needs to be based on the principle of ‘Ubuntu’. Recognition that there is a common thing that binds all of us together, and recognition that unless we protect and safeguard those who do not have access to the vaccine, we ourselves cannot be truly protected.
I end this article with a small disclaimer, I do not write this article from a medical point of view and I have therefore borrowed heavily from existing medical literature and scientific data in order to elucidate my points The argument I make this in this article is not a medical or public health argument, it is more of a moral appeal that I am trying to make in order to call attention to the stark inequalities that have been created in our world due to the pandemic. The central focus of this article has more to do with my protest against what is happening than to simply give you information about the vaccine rollout because in my opinion, the facts are already known to everyone and are out in the open. It will be what we as a global community decide to do with these facts that will be used to judge us in the future, whether we responded to the call of justice or we ignored the plight of our own people.
Furceri, D., Loungani, P., Ostry, J., & Pizzuto, P. (2021). Will COVID-19 Have Long-Lasting Effects on Inequality? Evidence from Past Pandemics. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi: 10.2139/ssrn.4026302
Hsiao, W., & Heller, P. (2007). What should macroeconomists know about health care policy? (pp. 25-36). [Washington, D.C.]: International Monetary Fund. https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/wp/2007/wp0713.pdf
Hunter, D., Abdool Karim, S., Baden, L., Farrar, J., Hamel, M., & Longo, D. et al. (2022). Addressing Vaccine Inequity — Covid-19 Vaccines as a Global Public Good. New England Journal Of Medicine, 386(12), 1176-1179. doi: 10.1056/nejme2202547
Mathieu, E., Ritchie, H., Ortiz-Ospina, E., Roser, M., Hasell, J., & Appel, C. et al. (2021). A global database of COVID-19 vaccinations. Nature Human Behaviour.
Vaccine Equity and Speed – UNDP Data Futures Platform. (2022). 26 March 2022. https://data.undp.org/vaccine-equity/vaccine-equity-and-speed
Juno, J., & Wheatley, A. (2021). Did vaccine inequity cause the emergence of Omicron?. The Week. https://www.theweek.co.uk/news/science-health/954973/did-vaccine-inequity-cause-the-emergence-of-omicron
World Health Organization, UNDP, University of Oxford. (2022). Vaccine inequity undermining global economic recovery. https://www.who.int/news/item/22-07-2021-vaccine-inequity-undermining-global-economic-recovery
Ryan, M., Swaminathan, S., & Henao, A. (2022). Vaccinate the World before Starting COVID Booster Shots. Retrieved 27 March 2022, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/vaccinate-the-world-before-starting-covid-booster-shots/
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author (s). They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the Jindal Centre for the Global South or its members.