Vaccine solidarity – the key to protecting human lives and the global economy

Image by Gabby K via Pexels

The pandemic is a chance for us to come together as humans

I truly believe that the current Covid-19 pandemic, not unlike the climate crisis can be seen as a chance as well as a test for humanity. Will we pass the test by working together as one, regardless of country borders, wealth distribution, and cultural differences? I agree with experts in epidemiology that we can only overcome the pandemic if we, as humans, realize that the virus does not respect national borders and if we use holistic approaches, taking care of all humans, and not just the ones in our respective countries and close communities. I am convinced that in order to save as many lives as possible and to keep the overall damage at its lowest, we need to take care of the most vulnerable first, not the most wealthy. The most vulnerable are people with conditions which increase their risks, the elderly, people in jobs with a lot of human contact, and, last but not least, people who are living detained in prisons or other camps in which they have no opportunity to socially distance and have little or no access to health care. Working together and distributing the vaccine equally worldwide is also the most rational choice to make from a strictly economic perspective.

Vaccine hoarding and vaccine nationalism

What we see happening right now is far away from a strategic vaccine distribution which tries to reach the world’s most vulnerable first. The wealthiest and most powerful states gained access to the vaccines much faster than others, reserving huge quantities of vaccines for themselves. In the extreme case of Canada, more than five times as many vaccines as there are people in the population were ordered from a plethora of suppliers. This leaves other countries way behind. For example, CNN reports that South American policymakers are “scrambling to catch up” as “the region accounts for roughly 15% or the world’s reported Covid-19 cases, but less than 3% of the global vaccine doses administered so far.”

Likewise, in South Asia current estimations also show big differences in the timelines of vaccination rollouts. Some countries like Singapore and Vietnam are looking at an estimated timeline for widespread vaccination coverage by Summer 2022, while “Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, the Philippines, and Indonesia – which together make up the bulk of the region’s population – are all expected to take at least two years to reach widespread vaccination rates, and possibly longer”, says a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

And just a short while ago, news agencies reported that Guinea was the first African country to start vaccinating. A whopping 25 doses. Yes, 25, not 25.000. Meanwhile, we read that the USA managed to vaccinate as much as one million people in just one day.

Matshidiso Moeti, the regional Director for Africa at the WHO (World Health Organisation) says: “It is deeply unjust that the most vulnerable Africans are forced to wait for vaccines while lower-risk groups in rich countries are made safe”. This really highlights the injustice and different treatment of people depending on where they live on this planet. Health is a fundamental human right. What we see happening worldwide does not reflect this.

What countries like Canada are doing is called “vaccine hoarding”. The buzzword “vaccine nationalism” describes countries like the UK that push to get first access to vaccines before others. Since this winter these words pop up regularly in our news feeds. What we need to advocate for is the opposite: global vaccine solidarity, based on scientific evidence.

At this point, solidarity within national borders should also be mentioned, as vaccination roll outs can potentially be discriminating against people who are not documented or people with different types or no health insurance.

Moral and economic arguments for vaccine solidarity

When countries hoard vaccines, they take away space and opportunity for other countries which did not have the means or influence to secure any vaccine doses fast enough. It is obvious that officials in all countries are under a lot of pressure to provide vaccines for their residents as fast as possible. And it is no surprise that the way to do that is to secure as many doses as they can afford and get their hands on. However, this approach is egocentric, short-sighted, and irrational for several reasons:

First and foremost, nature, and therefore the virus, does not know national or regional borders. It is neither logical nor effective to use national approaches which ignore the surrounding countries’ vaccination strategies. What is needed is a global approach which vaccinates the most vulnerable people first, and then everyone else. The wealth and power of one country over another should not override logical facts and strategies. Also, as Stephen Cockburn of Amnesty International says, the approach which many countries take is “unfair and also short-sighted… If you only vaccinate a portion of the world, you still can’t really open up global trade or global travel and you risk the virus coming back.” The latter would be in almost nobody’s interest. Also, the global economy is an interconnected web, which means that richer states will lose billions of Euros due to missing steps in the production chains when the production is happening in a country which is paralyzed by the pandemic. “Vaccinating a fifth of the world’s vulnerable population would cost less than forty billion dollars; not doing so could incur losses of more than $1.8 trillion”, experts say in an interview in The New Yorker. This means that even without the moral arguments, practicing vaccine solidarity is the most rational and sensible action richer states such as European states can possibly take. It is their self-interest.

The global vaccination timeline – and what that could mean

What time frames are we talking about in terms of the vaccinations in different parts of the world, as an estimation based on the current unfolding events? Oxfam’s health policy manager Anna Marriott says “Unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 for years to come.” Duke Global Health Innovation Centre in the USA estimated that “many people in low-income countries might have to wait until 2023 or 2024 for vaccination.” This timeline has the potential to not only do incredible harm to the health of people in these countries, but also to damage the economies. I have the theory that countries which vaccinate sooner would get a generous head-start and can go back to “a new normal” much sooner, while the other countries still have to deal with lockdowns which paralyze big parts of their economic systems. The result: the divide between the world’s most fortunate and so-called “developing countries” would grow immensely. It should also be mentioned here that the longer the virus circulates, the more the virus has the opportunity to mutate and potentially get more dangerous.

A Quaker perspective and a call to action

Our Quaker testimony of equality and our belief in “that of God in everyone” had inspired Quakers in the past to speak up against injustices such as slavery, discrimination, and violence. Today, we also need to speak up and advocate for those less privileged and work against the growing inequalities in today’s global context. I believe that the fight over who gets their vaccine first is turning into another one of those injustices which we Quakers should speak up against. Not only because it could save many lives, but also because it bears the potential to further grow the global divide between rich and poor, as well as inequality between treatment of documented and undocumented residents of countries when vaccinations are tied to citizenship.

We need to speak up and point decision makers to their moral obligations of solidarity and humanity, while also backing up our moral argument with strong scientific and rational arguments which show that egocentric vaccine nationalism and vaccine hoarding is neither sustainable nor the most effective way to overcome the pandemic.

As Quakers, who take their testimonies of equality, community, and peace seriously, we need to advocate for humanist approaches which do not leave detained people in prisons or other detention centers behind, but treat them as the fellow humans they are and with dignity. We need to fight for solutions which will not increase the divide between the world’s wealthiest people and countries and the poorest. Let us join in with other groups and organisations in their call for vaccine solidarity.

Lena Hofmaier, Communications Assistant at QCEA

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