It is disheartening to note that the world powers have not got their priorities straight yet although the global population has been in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic for the past one and a half years. We are yet to see a genuine global effort to fight the pandemic which has so far snuffed out the lives of 3.69 million people. The United Kingdom-based Economist magazine in its recent issue says the actual COVID-19 death toll could be about ten million, or thrice the figures reported by countries.
The World Health Organisation, the premier global agency tasked with eliminating diseases, is struggling to find the finances to buy life-saving vaccines while the rich nations not only administer the vaccines to the non-vulnerable groups such as children, but also hoard the vaccine, creating an artificial shortage that is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in vaccine-starved nations.
According to the International Monetary Fund, the rich nations could easily share one billion doses of their covid vaccines with less privileged nations this year without undermining their domestic vaccination priorities. Put it simply, about 6.5 million doses can be given away to each of the world’s 152 developing countries.
But why is this not happening? Perhaps, there is a neocolonial agenda behind the move to deny the poor nations the vaccine. If this is so it is an ill-thought-out neocolonial strategy.
On the contrary, if the funds the WHO is desperately trying to raise are made available to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the world population with a view to ending the pandemic, the shrinking world economy could see a dramatic bounce back. IMF research shows an additional US$50 billion in funding for global vaccination efforts would yield US$9 trillion in economic benefits.
The motto should be health is wealth. No wealth creation is possible if the world population is sick. The exception is the four front-running vaccine-makers who have seen their profits surge since the rollout of coronavirus shots, boosted by some $18.5 billion from government, public and private funding.
The sooner we conquer the virus the better it is for all nations whether they are rich or poor, as we do not know what kind of mutants the virus could produce as it continues to spread.
But why do rich nations maintain the shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines? In April, WHO director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference that on average in high-income countries, almost one in four people had received a Covid-19 vaccine. In low-income countries, it was one in more than 500. It is said that in some rich nations, a person is vaccinated every second, while in poor countries, some have not even received their first dose. The vaccine disparity which the WHO chief slammed as Vaccine Apartheid is morally disgusting, while the efforts to narrow the gap are agonizingly slow.
In Sri Lanka, some 600,000 people who received their first dose of AstraZeneca vaccine are yet to receive their second dose though the period within which the second dose was to be administered had long elapsed. The government appears to be doing everything possible to find the vaccines, but most nations which have a vaccine surplus are not willing to heed Sri Lanka’s appeal. The United States has agreed to share some 80 million doses of its surplus AstraZeneca doses. Earlier reports said the US had knocked off Sri Lanka from the nations that were to receive the vaccines.
Some believed there was geopolitics behind the vaccine giveaway. When Sri Lanka experienced a slight delay in receiving India’s gift of 500,000 Covishield vaccines produced by the Serum Institute of India, many speculated that India was twisting Sri Lanka’s arm for its failure to honour the pledge to hand over the Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal project to an Indian company-led consortium.
Similarly, some interpreted the reports that the US decision to exclude Sri Lanka from the vaccine recipient list as a retaliation for snubbing Washington when Sri Lanka, in a move believed to be connected more with Chinese pressure than Sri Lanka’s own national interest, rejected the US State Department’s Millennium Challenge Corporation deal last year. But last night, there was good news for Sri Lanka. The US list of its vaccine recipients includes Sri Lanka.
Geopolitical agendas apart, the Joe Biden administration should be hailed for abandoning Donald Trump’s myopic and irrational policies that have contributed to the wild spread of the virus in the US. Today, under Biden’s leadership, the US has become the biggest donor of the WHO’s financially handicapped Covax programme. The US has agreed to waive the patent on US-made vaccines, donated US$ 2 billion for the Covax programme and pledged another US$ 2 billion, as the world body chugs along with the ambitious task of delivering 2 billion jabs by December to poor and middle-income countries. Sri Lanka is expected to receive 8.6 million doses under this programme this year, but has so far received only 264,000 doses. This is because the programme suffered a massive blow due to India’s decision to suspend the vaccine exports from the Serum Institute despite the company’s contractual obligations to honour the deal with the Covax programme. This came after a fierce upsurge of the number of covid cases in India.
But there was some good news on Wednesday, when the global vaccine alliance and Covax partner Gavi announced its donor conference managed to secure US$ 2.4 billion funds from nations and organisations and also pledges from several countries to provide some 54 million doses to the Covax programme.
But such donor conferences are a knee-jerk reaction. To end the pandemic, what is called for is a united effort devoid of geopolitical agendas, with world leaders agreeing to an emergency plan to produce enough vaccines within the shortest possible time frame to inoculate the world’s 7.6 billion people. This is possible, but what is impossible is to bring the world leaders to agree to this programme of uniting for the common good of all.