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‘The global Covid-19 vaccine roll-out is creating a “vaccine apartheid”. As of February 24, approximately 216 million people have been vaccinated against Covid-19 globally. Only 8.4 percent of these are in low and lower-middle-income countries, which are home to nearly half of the world’s population. If this trend continues, young and healthy individuals in wealthy countries will be vaccinated while older and vulnerable people in poorer countries continue to die, needlessly.’ – ‘A call for global vaccine justice’ by Parsa Erfani, Eugene Richardson, and Jason Hickel

While patent-related safeguards for big pharmaceutical companies, and ‘vaccine nationalism’ have up till now helped create this ‘vaccine apartheid’ situation, whereby the time taken for most of global south for instance to receive vaccines on any wider scale may take from many months, to a few years. To undo this, both the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), along with the G20 group of countries have an important role to play in reducing the time lag with regard to vaccine availability. While the above, indeed, have an important role to play, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has an over-arching role in terms of bringing together individual countries, especially rich, powerful countries, and multilateral institutions, since above all, the current crisis is a health crisis in the first place. Otherwise, there will be both direct health consequences due to lack of vaccine availability and its delayed administration, and also indirectly will add to already immense economic misery in view of the fact that extreme poverty globally has risen during the pandemic for the first time since the 1990s.

Bill Gates, in an interview in late January this year, expected vaccine to be available to poorer countries after 6-8 months, which is somewhat an optimistic view, given many studies have projected availability of vaccines to poorer countries on a wider scale in years. For instance, in a very worrying scenario, Tom Randall, in an article ‘When will life return to normal? In 7 years at today’s vaccination rates’ published in Bloomberg in early February, and based on the newspapers’ own calculations, pointed out: ‘Bloomberg has built the biggest database of Covid-19 shots given around the world, with more than 119 million doses administered worldwide. US science officials such as Anthony Fauci have suggested it will take 70% to 85% coverage of the population for things to return to normal. Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker shows that some countries are making far more rapid progress than others, using 75% coverage with a two-dose vaccine as a target.’

The article points out that for life to return to normal globally, at least 75% of the population in individual countries is required to be vaccinated; and it may take up to 7 years (excluding Canada where it may take around a decade) for that to happen. This is indeed a very long time, and points towards serious issues in ways vaccines are being produced, and made available on a wider scale. Moreover, these kinds of timelines highlight the need for greater support, for instance, of the IMF in creating fiscal space for countries to purchase vaccines in time, but more importantly, and foremost for the vaccines to be produced far more quickly and traded without barriers, for which an urgent waiver from patents is required for Covid vaccines. Otherwise, the way things stand, even most of the rich countries will take years –Canada (9.7 years), China (7 years), Austria (6.9 years), France (3.9 years), Germany (3.2 years), Spain (3.1 years), Italy (2.8 years) – to provide inoculation to two-thirds of their populations on the basis of two-dose vaccine, while the poorer countries would indeed take a lot more years to reach the same milestone; for instance, Chile will take as many as 7.6 years!

Moreover, the world needs to understand that ‘vaccine nationalism’ will also hurt in another way, whereby the slow pace, and high level of inequality with regard to vaccine rollout, will indeed come with a big price tag in terms of economic losses globally. This will hurt the already increasing number of people moving below the poverty line. Martin Wolf of the Financial Times (FT) highlighted in a February 16 published article ‘Vaccinating the world is a test of our ability to co-operate’ pointed towards a need for a global vaccination drive and support from rich countries in the following manner: ‘The effort to vaccinate the world is not the only test of our ability to cooperate. Another is assistance to badly-hit developing countries, given that between 88m and 115m people fell back into extreme poverty last year, according to the World Bank. Still, the vaccine programme is a test of our capacity for self-interested cooperation, because the world cannot return to normal if the pandemic is not controlled everywhere. So far, the countries with the financial resources and technological capacity have won. According to the Financial Times’ vaccine tracker, more than 178m doses have been administered worldwide so far. Some 30 percent of them have gone to the US, 23 percent to China, 12 percent to the EU and 9 percent to the UK. India has administered only half as many doses as the UK. Many developing countries have administered none.’

This kind of unjustifiably lopsided inward-looking ‘vaccine nationalism’ will likely carry with it a high amount of economic cost, which will be devastating for the already rising levels of global extreme poverty, and will also allow unwarranted political populism, for instance an agenda of fear-mongering and spreading xenophobia, to the overall damage of a rather balanced democratic agenda of multilateralism and caring for wider needs of people globally. In this regard, an article ‘The $4 trillion economic cost of not vaccinating the entire world’ pointed out: ‘Our results showed that if wealthier nations are fully vaccinated by the middle of this year – a goal that many countries are striving for – yet developing countries manage to vaccinate only half of their populations, the global economic loss would amount to around US$4 trillion. We estimated the global economic cost of developing countries not vaccinating any of their citizens to be around $9 trillion. Work is underway to increase the reach of vaccines to developing countries, but nonetheless, it is likely that poorer nations will still lag in total numbers vaccinated.’

(To be continued tomorrow)

(The writer holds PhD in Economics from the University of Barcelona; he previously worked at International Monetary Fund)

He tweets@omerjaved7

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021

Dr Omer Javed

The writer holds a PhD in Economics degree from the University of Barcelona, and has previously worked at the International Monetary Fund. His contact on ‘X’ (formerly ‘Twitter’) is @omerjaved7


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