Rich countries have administered more doses of the Covid vaccine than their population size, an average of 105 doses per 100 people. In low-income countries, that figure is two for every 100 people. It is a disparity that is likely to define the post-pandemic world.
There has been a lot of discussion about the inequalities that Covid has exposed both within and between nations. Paradoxically, however, it is now that we are beginning to control the virus that inequalities may be most exposed.
There is little chance that the virus will be eradicated. Rather, it is likely to become endemic but contained in most western nations. The effectiveness of vaccines will allow people in wealthier countries to “live with the virus.” Not so in the poorest nations. The world’s 30 poorest countries, with a combined population of nearly 1 billion, have vaccinated on average just 2% of their population. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo the figure is 0.1%, in Haiti 0.24%, in Chad 0.27%, in Tanzania 0.36%. “Living with the virus” will mean something very different in those countries than in the West.
The policies pursued by rich countries will make it even more difficult for poorer nations to live with the virus. By the end of this year, the G7 club of the world’s largest economies will have stored nearly a billion replacement doses of Covid vaccines; Great Britain alone has more than 200 million. That G7 stockpile would be more than enough to vaccinate the entire adult population of sub-Saharan Africa.
The irony is that many poor countries show low levels of vaccine hesitancy but lack supplies for communities eager for inoculation, while in many of the hoarding countries, more people are skeptical about the vaccine. The evidence, observes one of the authors of a study on global vaccine vacillation, is that “prioritizing the distribution of vaccines in the Global South should result in high returns in advancing global immunization coverage”. However, in a system where vaccines are distributed according to the depth of your pockets, logic and necessity have little influence.
Covax’s story exposes the problem of global inequality. Jointly organized by the World Health Organization, GAVI, a campaign to increase access to immunization in poor countries, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), Covax aims for a fairer global distribution through the allocation of vaccines to 92 low- and middle-income people. countries. So far it has delivered less than 10% of the 2 billion promised doses.
One reason for the shortfall is that richer countries have been able to take Covax out of the vaccine market, making it difficult to obtain sufficient doses. Absurdly, having pushed Covax aside to get to the front of the vaccine queue, many wealthy countries subsequently purchased vaccines for themselves through the scheme, despite their depleting stocks. Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar have all purchased hundreds of thousands of doses of Covax vaccines. It is outrageously selfish, but it is hardly recognized.
Until recently, with the exception of one or two hot spots, African nations have had relatively low numbers of infections and deaths, although that may reflect poor data collection rather than the reality of Covid on the continent. Now, however, things are changing rapidly. Although the Delta variant has been largely controlled in Europe, vaccination weakens the link between infections, illness and hospitalization, it is ravaging much of sub-Saharan Africa.
The majority of the British population has a double whammy. However, some hospitals face considerable pressure. So imagine what it must be like in a country like the Democratic Republic of the Congo or Tanzania, where less than half of 1% of the population is vaccinated and where the health infrastructure was barely functioning even before the pandemic. To increase the pressure, Covid has reduced the ability of those countries to deal with other endemic diseases. A study suggested that deaths from HIV, tuberculosis and malaria could, in the next five years, increase by 10%, 20% and 36% respectively, compared to what could have been the case without the Covid crisis.
Beyond the immediate impact on health services, there is the long-term impact on the post-pandemic economic recovery. the The IMF has warned of “a worsening two-way recovery, driven by dramatic differences in vaccine availability.” Not only will the poor suffer from Covid, they will suffer even more from the slow recovery from Covid.
Perhaps most insidiously, Covid’s policies are likely to reinforce the physical segregation of the world. Wealthy nations already live as in closed communities, within the Fortress of Europe, the Fortress of Great Britain, the Fortress of Australia, all designed to keep out those of the poorest nations, be they migrants or refugees. “Offshoring”, the insistence that irregular migrants and asylum seekers must be processed not at the place of arrival but in a third country, is now common practice in the West. The United States is even treating Afghan refugees in this way.
In the post-pandemic world, defined by vaccine passports and quarantines, these policies will be even more entrenched. Last week, the Greek police fined irregular immigrants 5,000 euros the moment they got off their boats for not having performed a Covid test prior to arrival. It was an absurd move, designed more to scare and humiliate than to enforce Covid policy. After a protest, the police backed down. However, it provided a glimpse into the world to come, in which Covid fears may become yet another excuse to enforce tough and discriminatory immigration policies.
From tuberculosis to AIDS, there are A long story from authorities who use illness anxiety as a form of immigration control to keep the unwanted out. In a world segregated between the vaccinated rich and the unvaccinated poor, many non-Western countries can find themselves on a “red list” in more ways than one.
There are also self-serving reasons to try to ensure global vaccination. Large unvaccinated populations create greater scope for new variants to emerge, variants that could make existing vaccines less effective and therefore leave even inoculated populations more vulnerable. Selfishness is not only harmful to other people, it may not even be for your own benefit.
Inequality helped define the pandemic. It is likely to further define the post-pandemic world. And it will do so because of deliberate “I’m fine, Jack” decisions made by politicians in the rich world.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism