Global Affairs

Developing world at the mercy of vaccine elitism

On the 8th of December last year, a British citizen was the first to receive the Pfizer vaccine. Just one month later, 2.4 million doses have been administered in the UK, with an aim to increase this number to 15 million by the 15th of February. Unfortunately, in this race for immunity, developing countries have been left behind. More than half of the global vaccine supply has been allocated to just 14% of the global population – those in the richest countries. Lower and middle-income countries will now find it much more difficult to implement vaccination programmes, falling victim to ‘vaccine nationalism’.

In December last year, the People’s Vaccine Alliance stated that 96% of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines were purchased by economically developed countries. The global North has bought large surpluses sufficient to inoculate their citizens two or three times. Canada has been reported to have bought enough doses for its citizens to be vaccinated five times.

There is a noticeable absence of developing countries from the list of countries which have started rolling out the vaccine. Catherine Kyobutungi, Director of the African Population and Health Research Center, has blamed “a lack of global solidarity”. As a result, it is estimated that 90% of people in the top 70 low-income countries will not receive the vaccine by the end of this year. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that the vaccine will not be widely available in most African countries before Spring of 2022.

But African countries have fewer cases, so are in less need of the vaccine, right?

Wrong. Although the UK alone has recorded a similar number of cases as the whole of the African continent, human rights organisations have raised alarm bells at the detrimental, life-threatening effects that national lockdowns have had on lower and middle-income countries. For these countries, Robert Mardini, from the International Committee of the Red Cross, said that “the secondary and the socio-economic consequences [of the coronavirus] are as deadly as the primary consequences”, if not worse.

Take education, for example: lockdowns have disrupted children’s learning experiences across the globe. However, in lower-income countries, this issue is exacerbated by a lack of at-home teaching support. In Uganda, studies show that 37% of girls have been unable to access any of the Ministry of Education’s television and radio-based learning materials. Furthermore, Save the Children has estimated that as many as 10 million children may not be able to return to school after the pandemic, as a result of an increase in teenage pregnancies and parents marrying off their daughters due to financial difficulties.

Increases in domestic and gender-based violence have also been particularly common in lower and middle-income countries. Bangladesh has seen a tenfold increase in domestic violence in some areas, and Palestine saw a sevenfold rise when the pandemic began. Nigeria has declared a state of emergency due to an exponential increase in rape and femicide. Action Aid’s Country Director in Nigeria, Ene Obi, said that “[w]e have never been more alarmed about the violence unleashed on women and girls than in recent times”.

Organisations such as Save the Children have warned of a drastic rise in deaths from starvation and malnutrition due to the loss of income caused by stringent lockdown restrictions. This has been corroborated by a United Nations’  article that warns that COVID-related starvation could kill more people than the virus itself. These circumstances are likely to worsen if developing countries are left behind in the race to receive vaccinations.

The manufacturers of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine have been commended for their decision to supply 64% of doses manufactured to developing countries, but this decision alone will not resolve the issue. The World Health Organization estimates that for herd immunity to be effective, 60 to 70% of the world’s population must be vaccinated, highlighting how short-sighted vaccine hoarding is. Thrown into a situation where the instinct is to buy and hoard as many vaccines as financially possible, Western countries must realise that, in order to end this pandemic, the world will have to work together to dispense the vaccine equitably.