COVID-19 exposed and increased the vast inequalities of our world. Now, the effort to vaccinate humanity risks creating the last front of global inequality.
About 75 percent of all global vaccinations have been done in just 10 countries.
In a context of vaccine nationalism, debates over intellectual property or technology transfer, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is in grave jeopardy.
This will cost lives. It will stifle economies and push our recovery even further.
‘A monumental task’
The fact that vaccines have been developed and approved at record speed shows us exactly what we can achieve by working together. Now we need that same spirit of partnership to vaccinate the entire world.
It is a monumental task, the scale and urgency of which means that we must do everything we can to support it.
We must urgently share technology and doses, but we must also focus on the communities that are most left behind, which brings me to my point: How do we ensure that vaccines actually reach the arms of the most vulnerable, in difficult situations? to achieve? reach places, fragile states and conflict zones?
Even if the doses are in place, paid for and shipped, what does effective vaccine coverage mean in the mountains of Afghanistan or the Amazon, through the vast lands of the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or places with predominantly rural areas? and nomadic populations?
I ask these questions because running UNOPS, the UN’s procurement and infrastructure agency, has taught me that the last mile is immensely important.
The last mile
From bringing critical drugs to forest dwellers throughout Southeast Asia and delivering food, masks and disinfectants by canoe in Brazil, to trekking through the mountains of Afghanistan to register voters, we know that implementing projects in hard-to-reach areas requires ingenuity and resilience. And when it comes to vaccines with such delicate delivery requirements, the last mile is simply make or break.
Cold chain delivery requirements, for example, currently pose a much greater challenge for poor countries. This is due to the combination of poor transportation infrastructure, lack of reliable access to electricity to store vaccines (even for those that do not require ultra-low temperature storage), and high daytime temperatures.
The logistical challenge of getting vaccines from warehouses to the entire human population is key to the success of this largest vaccine deployment in our history. But this requires better health systems, supply chains and infrastructure, and strong logistical support.
There are many pieces to this puzzle: from distributing the vaccines and managing the necessary cold chain infrastructure, to hiring and training vaccinators, to communicating clearly with the communities involved, and to ensuring that medical waste from this massive vaccination exercise does not fill our lands. and oceans, and add to our climate emergency. All of these are even more tests in more challenging environments.
A moral obligation
We have a moral, not to mention financial, obligation to get this right. But the good news is that this challenging mass vaccination exercise also provides us with the opportunity to build more resilient health systems for a better future.
If the infrastructure for vaccination clinics is created in a sustainable way, it can also serve communities after the pandemic.
From solar water heaters to cold chain facilities to medical waste incinerators, the sustainable solutions on offer now can benefit communities in the long run.
Around this time last year, the pandemic revealed not only deadly inequalities, but also key flaws in health systems, supply chains, and logistics. One year later, we owe it to our world to harness the lessons learned, both to address vaccine inequality and to lay the foundations for more inclusive, resilient and sustainable health systems around the world.
This may be the lasting legacy of the pandemic: a world with a better global health infrastructure.
For many who live in countries where vaccines are already being administered, this will feel like the last mile. But we must remember that none of us is safe until all of us are safe.
We must ensure that we work together on this last global mile and cross the finish line together. If we don’t, we can’t be sure how long this mile will last.
_Grete Faremo is the Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNOPS, a specialist in infrastructure and procurement for the United Nations. _
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism