Coping with COVID-19: the perilous case of vaccine inequality

The Lancet Commission has urged the global community that rapid vaccination on a global scale is essential in tempering and, finally, prevailing over COVID-19. This in turn requires equitable access to available vaccine supplies across the world. Alas, such a requirement has not been met.

There has been an unseemly rush by rich countries of the world to acquire vaccine supplies on such a scale that the population of these privileged nations can be vaccinated multiple times. Ten countries of the world apparently account for 75 percent of the world’s vaccine stock. UK ‘pre-ordered’ doses of such magnitude that it can vaccinate its population at least five times. (see Figure 1 below). Meanwhile, 30 countries of the world have not had the opportunity to acquire even a single dose of available vaccines. If the status quo prevails, developing countries will take about three to four years before a significant proportion are vaccinated to reach herd immunity. COVAX , the global mechanism via which poorer parts of the world are, in principle, able to access vaccine doses, has only managed to ‘…acquire over 31 million doses (which has been delivered) …to 57 countries.’ This is pitifully small.

There is also the issue of the cost of these vaccines – with two of the most effective ones being so prohibitively expensive that they are outside the reach of the typical developing country. Vaccine producers are also protecting their intellectual property rights through stringent application of patents, making it difficult, if not impossible, for producers in developing countries to replicate vaccine supplies through the dissemination of locally made, generic products.

In sum, there is every reason for critics to be full of rage and allege that the rich countries of the world have, once again, failed to act as true global citizens who care both about the welfare of their citizens as well as others. They have, in effect, acted as unethical ‘hoarders’. WHO was compelled to issue the warning that vaccine inequality is becoming ‘grotesque’ with each passing day.

Intellectual and civic activism against an inequitable and unfair global order must continue. COVID-19 in rich countries cannot be defeated unless it is effectively tackled in the developing world. Accepting the harsh global reality of ‘business-as-usual’ in sullen silence will be tantamount to a failure of our ‘moral imagination’.

Figure 1

Vaccine inequality across the world