Even as we celebrate the first shots of the COVID-19 vaccines administered in the UK, it is increasingly clear that poorer countries will have to wait years to access the treatment and protect their people. Some rich countries have acquired enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly three times over, while experts suggest that nine out of ten people in poor countries will not receive a vaccine this year.
This disparity is alarming. For the majority of people in the Global South, the virus and now, it seems, the vaccine, are refracted through legacies of colonialism, public services decimated by IMF-enforced austerity programs, and supply chains embedded in a global economy that replicate imperialism. The United Nations estimates that nearly half of all jobs in Africa could be lost, while Oxfam calculates that the virus’ economic impact may push half a billion people into poverty.
This pandemic came to a world already in crisis, compounding climate catastrophe, economic sanctions and border regimes, pharmaceutical greed, and privatised health systems built to serve a tiny elite. Precarious workers and the marginalised suffered most, even as reactionary politicians around the world found new vocabulary to demonise migrants and minorities for the ills of the pandemic.
If indeed the Covid-19 vaccines are to end the pandemic, we know what needs to happen: 60% of the world must be inoculated to achieve herd immunity. Yet we continue to act as though any one country can end the crisis alone by repeatedly thwarting attempts at global solidarity, coordinated action, and ultimately, international justice.
A few weeks after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, the Costa Rican President proposed setting up a Technology Access Pool to facilitate voluntary sharing of health technology, intellectual property, and data. This was inimical to pharma companies’ bottom line and discarded with little fanfare by their ruling protectors.
A few months later, its successor, the COVAX Facility for vaccine distribution – an effort to subsidize vaccines for developing countries – seemed promising. It now contends with a shortfall of US$28 billion.
And now, close to a year in, a handful of the richest countries, including the UK, are opposing a proposal at the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property barriers to aid a swift and just Covid-19 response. Even as the UK began to receive the first doses of the vaccine, it joined the rich bloc in voting against the proposal, dooming large swathes of the world to contend with the pandemic alone. Big pharma’s executives retained their profits.
We call on the UK government to reverse its opposition to widely available and affordable vaccines for the world’s poorer nations and to work with countries like South Africa and India through the WTO to ensure big pharma’s mega profits aren’t more important that global health.