Illustration by Josephine Moir

With the recent rise of the Omicron variant, there have been urgent calls for people to get booster shots and even fourth vaccinations to ensure protection against COVID-19. I myself am going to go receive my third dose in a couple of weeks and remain utterly grateful that I live in a country where vaccines are readily available to anybody who wishes to have one.

Yet I tire of seeing the same old cycle rear its ugly head again and again: a new variant crops up, a fresh wave of infection sweeps in, restrictions are tightened (reluctantly), the case numbers die down, restrictions are loosened (not-so-reluctantly), then a new variant arrives. Rinse and repeat. It happened with the Alpha variant, then Delta, and now Omicron.

And it will keep happening, unless we get over our selfishness and begin making an actual effort to ensure every single person in the world who is medically able gets vaccinated. Not just our loved ones. Not just our fellow citizens. Everyone, especially those living in developing nations.

In Haiti, only 0.7% of people are fully vaccinated. In Mali, it is 3%. In Syria, 5.1%. Overall, only 10% of people living in low-income countries have received even a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

This is absolutely unacceptable for several reasons. For one, it is commonly recognised that, short of the coronavirus miraculously disappearing by itself, vaccines and herd immunity are the only way out of this pandemic. That’s why every country is so concerned about hitting the seventy-percent vaccination target, and why governments had been willing to fund the production of new vaccines that had no guarantee of actually working. The USA alone, for example, spent more than $12 billion through Operation Warp Speed, which sought to hasten vaccine development. And here in the UK, the development of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine was found to be almost entirely publicly funded.

But there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding here. The fabled seventy-percent vaccination target is not just for individual nations, but for the entire world. We might physically live on an island, but we are not isolated to any significant extent—no modern nation is. COVID-19 does not, and will not, magically disappear once the national target is reached. As long as it continues to rage on in some part of the world, new infections are always going to seep in and spread through the population. The only way for the pandemic to truly be brought under control is if the virus is beat targeted equally evenly and in every part of the world.

That will never happen if first-world countries continue to hoard their vaccines, only giving them to those living within their borders. I understand that governments have a duty to their citizens first, and I am not suggesting that they shirk that duty. But they have a duty to planet Earth as well, one that they have taken few steps to fulfil.

They hoarded vaccines even before the first doses were injected into arms. By December of 2020, the United States had secured more than a billion doses of six different vaccines—that is almost three times the size of its population and more than enough to fully vaccinate every single American, with millions left over. The UK was not much better: it had preordered more than five doses per person, with even more to be negotiated. Overall, high-income countries had snatched a total of 3.49 billion doses for themselves beforehand, while low-income nations could not be found to have done any direct deals at all. They were left to fend for themselves, perpetually playing catch-up, with their only hope being the WHO-sponsored COVAX initiative.

COVAX was supposed to bring vaccine equity to the world by giving vaccines to countries that desperately need them. However, the wealthy nations that pledged the doses necessary for the entire scheme to work have not fulfilled their promises. The UK, for example, pledged 100 million doses to COVAX, but has currently parted with only a fourth of that amount. The EU is doing better, with 300 million doses of their 500-million-dose pledge actually being delivered, but that is still not enough. While COVAX missed its 2 billion target for 2021, developed countries cheerfully rolled out booster shot programmes and threw away millions of expired doses.

In effect, we have traded long-term stability for short-term benefits. Yes, our death rates have dropped dramatically, and we have been able to return to semi-normal lives. These are all wonderful things, and I am not saying they are not. But continuing to offer booster shots while ignoring the outside world is equivalent to slapping a plaster over a gaping wound. With large parts of the world remaining for the most part wholly unvaccinated, new and increasingly mutated variants are going to continue to make themselves known, and it is only a matter of time before our vaccines lose their efficacy. Furthermore, with countries continuously re-entering lockdowns and multitudes of employees unable to work, the economic losses caused by the pandemic will only keep soaring.

Ultimately, hoarding vaccines helps no one. We need to get our act together and actually cooperate, or else this pandemic will have no end in sight.