Why the ‘Global Vaccine Apartheid’ Is a Dire Warning for the Future

A covid-19 vaccine being drawn from a vial.
A covid-19 vaccine being drawn from a vial.
Photo: Christopher Furlong (Getty Images)

The covid-19 vaccination effort is finally achieving liftoff in the U.S. In the days since we highlighted the case for optimism about the pandemic ending, data collected by Bloomberg shows 2 million more Americans have received a shot.

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The U.S. is outpacing most European countries in terms of doses given per 100 people. Looking at the Bloomberg map, though, shows an even starker discrepancy. The African continent is nearly blank, as are large parts of Latin America and Central and Southeast Asia. Vaccine contracts similarly reveal a huge chasm—in the U.S., there are enough vaccines purchased to inoculate 199% of the population. Canada and the UK are above 300%. In contrast, many African countries are in the single digits. This uneven distribution is creating what Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of UNAids and United Nations under-secretary general, has called “a global vaccine apartheid,” and it’s a lesson of what the climate crisis holds if the Global North hordes the solutions.

Like the climate crisis, the pandemic has exposed the chasms that exist between the haves and have nots. At the national level in the U.S., it’s resulted in Black, brown, and Indigenous Americans dying at higher rates than the overall population. While mostly white office workers are able to work safely from home, those working in low-wage jobs like factory workers, meat-packing plants, and delivery drivers have been exposed to the virus and forced to fight for protections. The vaccine rollout in the U.S. has followed similar patterns, and the injustice is even sharper at the global level.

Right now, demand for covid-19 vaccines is outstripping supply. But as a Bureau of Investigative Journalism dive into the global data shows, uneven vaccine distribution due to rich countries’ wealth, clout, and funding into vaccine development could end up setting the world back. Developed countries have also paid less for the vaccine than developing ones, in some cases; the Bureau for Investigative Journalism found Uganda paid $7 per dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, triple the EU’s price tag. It’s the equivalent of comping a celebrity’s meal at a restaurant while forcing someone living paycheck-to-paycheck to cover the difference on their bill.

The reasons for more equitable vaccine distribution are manifold. There’s a prevailing idea that once the U.S., for example, is vaccinated to the point where it reaches herd immunity, things can go back to something approaching normal life. But as we’ve seen, the coronavirus doesn’t respect borders. The longer coronavirus circulates in other countries, the more the risk of mutations that vaccines may not ward off could rise. That’s already on display with the South African variant, which appears able to sneak past the AstraZeneca vaccine’s defenses (though illness appears to be less severe when it does).

Beyond that, there’s also a very real risk that the pandemic continuing in countries far from rich countries’ borders could still wreak havoc on their economies. The world is not just connected by air travel, it’s connected by commerce. Economic slowdowns in countries where the virus surges could travel up the supply chain and slow the economy down in countries where herd immunity has been reached.

Covax, a global effort for rich countries to fund vaccine distribution in poorer countries, is poised to help somewhat by providing vaccines for 20% of registered countries’ populations. But there is a strong international case to more equitably distribute the various approved covid-19 vaccines even more equitably, as well as a case for regulators to relax patents on the vaccines so production can be ramped up for the world’s sake. Wealthy countries could donate excess vaccine doses to Covax or through other means, though few have laid out plans or a timetable to do that.

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They may want to consider all these avenues for their own sake; a paper modeling a cooperative, global vaccine distribution strategy where countries receive doses relative to their population size shows doing so would result in 61% fewer deaths globally. Deciding who’s grandma or emergency room physician gets vaccinated—and who potentially dies as a result of not being vaccinated—is fraught, and I do not envy decision-makers having to make those choices and explaining them to the public. But there’s a strong argument for countries working together rather than trying to get theirs.

The struggle to operate under that paradigm with the clear and present danger of the pandemic is a worrisome sign as the world pivots to addressing the climate crisis. The whole reason the climate crisis exists is that wealthy countries have spent decades burning fossil fuels with abandon at the expense of worsening climate shocks at home and abroad. The impacts of decisions made in those decades will also reverberate throughout this century as the climate tries to find a new equilibrium.

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The same is also true of the decisions we collectively make today. Turning off the dirty fuel that’s driving the climate crisis is only one aspect of a much bigger shift needed. Just as important is figuring out how to divide up the emissions we can relatively safely put in the atmosphere in the coming decades. Rich countries have emitted much more than their fair share of emissions. It’s what enabled them to become rich countries in the first place.

When it comes to decarbonizing, a just plan would see wealthy countries take on the burden of leading the way and providing technical know-how to less developed ones. Since we can’t grow the allowable-emissions pie without inviting disaster, it would also give those countries a greater share of what pie is left.

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At the same time, the changes we have already locked in are going to literally reshape the world as we know it. Even under a best-case scenario where the world keeps warming to the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, millions of people will still be forced to migrate because of drought, extreme heat, or sea level rise. Arable land would shrink in regions like the edge of the Sahara, upending livelihoods. Extreme events like the major hurricanes that battered Central America last year would become more common.

Wealthy countries can build all the sea walls or install all the air conditioners running on wind power they want. At the end of the day, they’ll also need to find a way to help countries with fewer resources do the same, both because it is the moral thing to do, but also because of the same reasons they should be finding a way to get more vaccines to places in need.

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Consider the Syrian civil war, which a climate change-driven drought helped spark. It destabilized an entire country, led to the rise of ISIS, and created a refugee crisis that has fueled the far-right and anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe. While aid to drought-stricken farmers alone wouldn’t necessarily have curbed Syrian President Bashir al-Assad’s atrocities, the ongoing war, death, and destabilization of the past decade is what awaits if the world does not become more democratic and cooperative.

Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.

DISCUSSION

Bill

While it is true that much of Africa, and even the poorer nations in Asia and South and Central America, are not getting much of the vaccines — it is also true that these nations are not infested with whiny idiots that think diseases won’t infect their asses. And they take these seriously.

It might take longer to vaccinate these places, but they are also taking the coronavirus seriously. While the US infection and death rates exceed the entire freaking African subcontinent.