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Today we mark Zero Discrimination Day, as the world faces a huge moral test in rolling out Covid vaccines. 75% of all vaccinations so far have been in just 10 countries. How to address this inequality? We ramp up production by allowing more countries to produce generic vaccines.
You may have never heard of Gedo, but it’s the size of Ireland. It’s a remote, dusty, hot region of Somalia, affected by decades of conflict and grinding poverty, where courageous frontline workers now face the threat of Covid.
In Trócaire’s hospitals in Gedo, Habiba Maalim works as a nurse midwife coordinator, helping to safely delivery babies in a country where women are over 150 times more likely to die in childbirth than in Ireland. Habiba and her co-workers badly need Covid vaccines, but it is a mark of our deeply unequal world that they’re not going to be able to get them anytime soon.
For over 30 years, Trócaire has been the only healthcare provider in Gedo. We don’t anticipate receiving any Covid vaccines, not even for our doctors, nurses and midwives, until next year at best. Our team provide healthcare services to 19,000 people every month. Should just one doctor be unable to work because of Covid, it could be life threatening to thousands of expectant mothers.
The world has begun to distribute Covid vaccines, but places like Somalia are being left behind. Rich countries with just 16 per cent of the world’s people have bought up 60 per cent of global vaccine supply. As a result, while more than 225 million people have already received vaccines across the world, only 0.02% of those people live in sub-Saharan African countries. Almost half of the world’s countries haven’t been able to vaccinate a single person yet.
Some wealthy countries have even ordered enough doses to vaccinate their populations ten times over. Canada, with a population of 38 million, has reserved 414 million doses. The EU has secured agreements to vaccinate its population twice over.
The wealthiest people can even buy vaccines privately. For €45,000, members of a private club in the UK can travel to Dubai to get a private appointment to get the jab.
At the same time, billions of people in the world’s poorest countries won’t be able to receive a vaccine this year. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, 84 of the world’s poorest states won’t get enough vaccines to achieve herd immunity until 2024. This is a shocking injustice.
The good news is that the global Covax initiative has been set up to get vaccines to the world’s poorest countries. Around half of the world’s countries – the half with the lowest incomes – will be able to get free vaccines to their people through Covax.
However, the reality of our unequal world is that these countries will be waiting in line. Wealthier countries have secured bilateral deals with pharmaceutical companies, and having deep pockets means you can get your populations vaccinated first, leaving the poorest countries at the bottom of the queue.
Some rich countries are saying that they will share their excess vaccines once they’ve covered their populations. Yet this approach is still deeply unfair – it says to the rest of the world, ‘we’ll cover our people first and then you can have the leftovers when we’re done’.
Don’t get me wrong – the vaccine can’t come quickly enough in Ireland. Like everyone, I’m exhausted by endless lockdowns and I can’t wait to see vulnerable relatives vaccinated as soon as possible. Yet it simply isn’t fair that we will see healthy younger people in rich countries vaccinated long before vulnerable people and frontline workers in countries like Somalia.
UN Chief Antonio Guterres has recently said that ‘at this critical moment, vaccine equity is the biggest moral test before the global community’. Tedros Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, has also called the stark inequality a ‘catastrophic moral failure’.
It is also remarkably short-sighted. Allowing the virus to circulate in poorer countries will inevitably lead to further mutations, which may threaten the efficacy of vaccines. Getting vaccines quickly rolled out to poor countries is in everyone’s interests.
It also makes little sense economically. A study by the International Chamber of Commerce estimates the global economy could suffer losses of $9 trillion if poorer countries – which produce many of the goods we consume – are shut out from vaccine rollouts. This dwarfs the costs of producing vaccines for the entire world’s population.
This isn’t just about sharing what vaccines are currently being produced, it’s about ensuring we have enough vaccines produced quickly enough for the world’s population. Unless production is quickly ramped up around the world to meet global demand, there simply will not be enough supply for all the countries in need.
Intellectual property rights need to be waived so South Africa, Brazil and India can ramp up production of cheaper vaccines. More than 100 countries are calling on the World Trade Organisation to provide such a waiver, but the EU stands in the way and is trying to block this waiver.
Shouldn’t public health trump the pursuit of profit at this time of crisis, particularly given that vaccines have been developed in record time with the aid of over $10 billon of public and philanthropic funding? Surely during a once-in-a-century pandemic we should treat vaccines as a global public good?
Today there will be a key World Trade Organisation meeting which happens to be falling on Zero Discrimination Day. It would be an appropriate day for Ireland to support this intellectual property waiver and to try and persuade the EU to stand on the right side of history.
This moment will be remembered for decades to come. Either as the moment when rich nations like Ireland sided with pharmaceutical corporations rather than with the needs of humanity, or as the moment where humanity came together to defeat this indiscriminate disease.
I am hoping the day is not far away when my own parents are vaccinated. I am also looking forward to the day when I hear that Habiba in Somalia has also received her vaccine.