A moral test: On the vaccine divide

Privileged nations must improve global availability and equitable access of vaccines

A year after the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a pandemic, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has criticised “the many examples of vaccine nationalism and hoarding” in the world. Making available vaccines equitably presents the “greatest moral test of our times”, he added. In spite of exhortations by international organisations and efforts to pool resources in a way that all countries could at the earliest begin inoculating at least a fraction of their most vulnerable, several countries were unable to administer a single dose although vaccines were beginning to be stockpiled since November last. In Africa, only 13 countries, according to the Bloomberg tracker, have begun vaccinating. In contrast, over 10% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, or got both doses, as has 3% of the EU. The percentages nearly double when accounting for their populations that have got at least one dose, reaching as high as 34% in the U.K.

India is the third biggest vaccinator among countries, having administered about 26 million doses, or about 1.91 doses per 100 people. But it has fully vaccinated only 0.3% of its population. While India has earned laurels for its ‘vaccine diplomacy’, the fact is that there are several public health centres, villages and districts where no vaccines have been administered. Though vaccination in the second phase appears to have picked up, there were only 1.7 million inoculations on Friday evening as opposed to the planned vaccination capacity of 5.4 million. India aims to inoculate at least 250 million with two doses from March-July — or over 3.3 million doses per day. But at best, India has administered 1.8 million doses per day. There is also an apparent “class divide” with the rich and those better informed disproportionately getting vaccinated as compared to the poor. Thus, along with the global inequity in accessing vaccination, India is seeing a version of it play out three months since vaccinations began. The inequality was expected as like many rich countries, the U.S. contracted with many vaccine companies for several times the doses it needed. It was precisely this that had led to concerns of ‘vaccine nationalism’. The pipeline of supply was largely dependent on India and China. The Serum Institute, Bharat Biotech and several other pharma companies are private entities and bound by contracts to the highest bidders, and not necessarily the Indian government. While the reprieve is that more vaccines are in the pipeline, there will always be the concern that the poor, the old and the digitally naive will be shortchanged. The UN and WHO must continue to exert pressure on the privileged nations to improve global availability as well as bear upon countries to improve equitable access within their territory too.



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