A policeman receives a dose of COVISHIELD, a COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Serum Institute of India, at a vaccination centre in Ahmedabad, India. Reuters
As nations rich and poor struggle to come out of the pandemic pit pinning their hopes on hurriedly tested vaccines approved only for emergency use, a clarion call comes from the United Nations Security Council.
The call comes with the shocking news about the vulgar disparity in the vaccine distribution. Global justice activists have cried foul over the unfair distribution and the over-purchasing of vaccines by certain rich nations, while the poor nations are left to their fate.
Addressing the Security Council on Wednesday, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres hit out at the manner in which the vaccines were being distributed. Describing it as “wildly uneven and unfair”, he revealed that just 10 countries had administered 75 percent of all vaccinations, while some 130 countries had not received a single dose of vaccine yet. He then called for an urgent Global Vaccination Plan.
Emphasizing the urgent need for such a global plan, he warned, “If the virus is allowed to spread like wildfire in the Global South, it will mutate again and again. New variants could become more transmissible, more deadly and, potentially, threaten the effectiveness of current vaccines and diagnostics. This can prolong the pandemic significantly, enabling the virus to come back to plague the Global North.”
The secretary general’s statement is a welcome call, though the UN chief and the UN bureaucracy, in anticipation of the rich nations’ lunge to grab the vaccines, should have issued the call at the onset of the pandemic. Anyway, it’s better late than never.
Addressing the Security Council, Mexico’s Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard denounced the “injustice” of what he called a “deepening gap” as wealthy countries “monopolize the vaccines.”
Perhaps, the UN chief and the Mexican Foreign Minister were indirectly highlighting the inadequacy of the World Health Organization-led COVAX initiative which is set up to ensure an equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines among all nations. The WHO’s ambitious programme aims to deliver two billion vaccine doses in 2021 to partner nations, but the programme is being criticised for its slow progress in dispatching the vaccines. It also suffers from inadequate funding.
With the wait for COVAX becoming longer and costlier in terms of lives and opportunity costs, most countries are now signing in private deals with vaccine producers. Serbia, for instance, is following a free market policy, buying vaccines from every source. With Serbians being able to go for the vaccine of their choice, the country’s vaccination policy is being hailed as a success and worthy of emulation.
Also drawing much praise for their successful vaccination programmes are Britain and Israel. In Israel, the rapid vaccination programme has drastically reduced the spread of the disease, with the Pfizer vaccine proving to be 95 percent effective there. Apart from the allegation that the people in the occupied Palestinian territories are not being prioritized for vaccination, Israel’s success is also marred by the claim that it has over-purchased vaccines from Pfizer to inoculate its adult population, while many nations have not even received their first dose.
When the new coronavirus disease was first reported in China and started to spread globally warranting the WHO to declare it as a pandemic even before the world body could give it a name, many thought, like SARS and MERS, the outbreak would fizzle out soon. But even when the death toll and the number of cases increased and developed nations struggled to cope with the pandemic while regretting their failure to take timely preventive measures, the international community showed little or no interest for a concerted global effort to combat the pandemic. No country came forward to give leadership to an initiative aimed at a united global response completed with not only health guidelines and research for medicine and vaccines but also economic bailout packages and relief measures to debt-ridden nations.
The usual expectation was for the United States to play that leadership role as it was still the most powerful democratic nation in the world.
But Donald Trump, the man in charge of the US administration when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out and spread uncontrollably, played politics, vilifying China rather than rolling up his sleeves to play the commander in chief role in the global war against the invisible enemy.
Displaying an irresponsible behaviour and thereby giving credence to the claim that he was a misfit for leadership, Trump became a problem to the country’s top disease control experts as he did not care about health guidelines such as wearing face masks, physical distancing and lockdowns. The bad example he set aggravated the pandemic in the United States. So much so, he, his family members and several White House officials were afflicted by the disease. His lackadaisical attitude amounted to criminal negligence and should have been a cause for a third impeachment bid against him.
Blissfully, Trump is now is history. There is once again an opportunity for world leaders to come together in the war against the COVID virus.
The UN chief now says scientists, vaccine producers and those who can fund the effort should have come together to ensure that all people in every nation get inoculated as soon as possible.
To give the proposed global plan a shot in the arm, the Secretary General is calling on the G7 nations which are meeting on Friday to fund it. He believes the world’s economically powerful nations represented in G20 can establish an emergency task force equipped with the capacity to bring together “the pharmaceutical companies and key industry and logistics actors”.
To set in motion the secretary general’s urgent Vaccination Programme, what is more apt is a world summit for leaders to not only address the need for a fair distribution of the vaccines but also to come up with an international aid programme to help poor nations to buy vaccines or a system by which rich nations will sponsor or subsidize the poor nations’ vaccine purchases.
A positive movement in this direction was spotted on Wednesday, when Britain called for ceasefires in conflict zones to allow the delivery of COVID-19 vaccine. With Britain taking over the presidency of the UN Security Council, the proposal is to be discussed in the coming days.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said there was a “moral duty to act” to prevent more than 160 million people being excluded from vaccines because of instability and conflict in war zones in Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia.
While we welcome Britain’s call, much needs to be done in the global war against the pandemic. For instance, international sanctions against countries such as Iran and Cuba also should be suspended to enable them to buy or develop their own vaccines. Perhaps, also required is a world summit similar to the 1944 Bretton Wood summit which regulated the international financial and economic order after World War II.
Let’s turn the pandemic into an opportunity to reset the world order and bring about a rule-based system that respects international law and justice, with a fair distribution of the global wealth.
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