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EDITORIAL: Four major international organisations – the World Health Organisation (WHO), World Bank (WB), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organisation (WTO) – have called on world leaders to make a “new commitment” to the more equal distribution of vaccines to combat the Covid pandemic. In an article in The Washington Post, the respective heads of these organisations have argued that inequality in access to vaccinations between wealthy and poor countries is further complicating and prolonging the pandemic, which has so far claimed 3.5 million lives globally. The access gap between rich and poor countries, they argue, is responsible for the emergence of the variants of the virus fuelling fresh outbreaks in the developing world. It goes without saying that the group has hit the nail on the head when they say there can be no broad-based recovery without an end to this health crisis. For that end, global access to the vaccines is critical. Ending the pandemic is possible, they continue, but this requires global action now. Addressing the G-7 group of developed countries, they say the group should agree on a “stepped-up, coordinated strategy” and commit to new financing for the effort at their next meeting in London this month, preferably in support of the IMF’s $ 50 billion plan. In May 2021, the G-7 had committed to financially supporting the UN-backed Covax programme but failed to announce any immediate fresh funding despite repeated calls for the G-7 to do more to help poorer countries. Previously, in March 2021, the WHO had characterised inequality in access to the vaccines “grotesque”, and in May 2021 asked the wealthy countries to refrain from administering shots to less vulnerable children and adolescents within their own countries, donating inadequately available vaccines to other, more vulnerable countries instead. But contrary to the thrust of the Covax programme, the wealthy countries elbowed out Covax in the early stages of vaccine procurement, striking their own deals with drug manufacturers to take an overwhelming share of the 1.8 billion doses administered worldwide.

The corona pandemic has served to expose the fundamental inequities imbedded in the global health system. Big Pharma has played a capitalist, market- and profit-oriented role in booking inadequate vaccine supplies for the wealthiest countries. That may have helped, for example, Britain to move from 4.49 million total cases of which 127,782 died within 28 days of testing positive since the pandemic broke out, which is the worst toll in Europe, to zero deaths today despite the rise in Delta variant cases. Britain’s highly developed health system and early procurement at the cost of leaving the poorer countries in the lurch no doubt contributed to this happy outcome. But the UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock has warned that the welcome milestone does not mean the virus is beaten yet. The fact is that the pandemic can only be rolled back if the whole world is provided access to vaccines, first and foremost for the most vulnerable, e.g., health workers and older people, and then, incrementally as vaccines become available in adequate quantities, to the rest. Vaccine ‘nationalism’, i.e., prioritising one’s own people first, irrespective of comparative vulnerability, cannot and will not scotch the pandemic. Either the rich countries in particular understand that unless access to vaccines for the people of the world, prioritising the most vulnerable first, is ensured, there is little guarantee that the virus cannot resurge. Countries such as Vietnam, celebrated in the early days of the pandemic for an excellent record of controlling the outbreak, are today afflicted like many others. This underlines the truth that either the world works together on this, or no one is safe. The call from the four major global organisations goes to the heart of the matter: we all either sink or swim together.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2021