COVID: a global challenge that highlights inequality

By The Editorial Board 14 March 2021, 12:00AM

News that the British High Commission has been the single largest donor to the COVAX distribution scheme for providing COVID-19 vaccines for developing countries with a $1.5 billion donation is welcome indeed. 

The U.K. has also earmarked millions in tala specifically for the Pacific as we revealed in Friday’s edition (“U.K. support to continue: High Commissioner”.)

For this and other promises of continued help for both COVID-19’s ongoing health and economic impacts, we can only extend our gratitude.

Thanks chiefly to their generosity and that of others, some 7,500 vaccines from the COVAX facility will be arriving on Samoan shores next month and in May. 

But all the same, let us not allow our appreciation for this generosity to cloud our eyes to an uncomfortable truth about this global pandemic. It is increasingly obvious that there is a gulf between rich and poor countries when it comes to rolling out vaccines in answer to what is fundamentally a global problem. 

There have been no serious threats to our public health, but the global pandemic has hit Samoa incredibly hard; our economy is spiraling into what could very soon become a depression. 

The scourge of COVID-19 can only ever be finally overcome when every nation on earth has immunised a sufficient proportion of its population. We believe vaccines must be distributed on the basis of equality, not a nation’s wealth.

But the global pandemic has hit small nations such as Samoa incredibly hard, And it can only ever be finally overcome when the virus is eradicated in every nation on earth.

Vaccines must be distributed according to the standards of equality, not wealth. 

We have the multilateral institutions which would allow for this to happen, such as the COVAX facility and the World Health Organisation. 

But despite the generosity provided by countries such as the United Kingdom a pattern of global inequality in vaccine distribution is becoming increasingly obvious. And as one of the world’s smallest nations, Samoans are likely to be among the last to receive full vaccine coverage. 

Let’s compare Samoa’s forthcoming consignment of vaccines with those being shipped elsewhere. 

European Union countries struck a deal for the delivery of 100 million doses of the Oxford University AstraZeneca vaccinations, only to be told their requests were more than the manufacturer could produce. That request has since been scaled down to 40 million for the first quarter of this year.

This week America’s new President, Joe Biden, increased his country’s orders for vaccine consignments to such a degree that would allow every American citizen to be vaccinated twice over. 

The President has made clear that until America begins to reach that surplus supply it will not be contributing to global efforts to vaccinate the world and help low-income countries receive vaccinations.

This is the wrong approach for a President who has styled himself as a coalition-builder in foreign policy terms. 

But it is one shared by other wealthy nations too, such as the United Kingdom, the Government of which says it will not export any vaccines until its entire population receives them. 

For poorer countries, by contrast, the COVAX facility estimates it will be able to provide enough vaccine doses for 20 per cent of the populations of each of the world’s 145 poorest countries.  

The COVID-19 pandemic is a once-in-a-generation global setback that has affected the entire world, either through the toll it has claimed on human lives or on all countries’ global economies. 

It demands a once-in-a-generation response in international cooperation that does not create a gulf between rich and poor countries.  

There are several different variations of the vaccines now available, ranging from those produced by Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson and Jonson’s, as well as others being produced in Russia and China. 

The nations of the world are in this predicament together; we should be striving for a common and equally deployed solution that binds more tightly the bonds between the nations of the world. 

In a display of selflessness and goodwill, Governments should compensate pharmaceutical companies and waive aspects of certain treaties that ringfence life-saving medicine under intellectual property laws. 

The blueprints of these vaccinations should instead be shared around the world and distributed at an equitable rate. 

Relying on the production of potential vaccines to be produced in just a handful of the world’s countries will of course create a bottleneck for the rate at which vaccines can be produced. And smaller countries such as Samoa will almost certainly find themselves at the back of the queue. 

There are potential hubs for vaccine production around the world that could be employed to help create a global solution. 

Thailand invested in vaccine research years ago to combat local disease outbreaks and can produce vaccinations that cannot be made in wealthier countries such as Australia.

As of this week, Amnesty International figures showed that over half of the world’s supply of COVID-19 vaccines had been bought by rich countries whose citizens account for only 16 per cent of the world’s population. 

These same countries have administered 60 per cent of the available COVID-19 shots while more than half the world, 100 countries, are yet to vaccinate a single citizen.

This is morally unacceptable.

Countries such as Australia and New Zealand have made encouraging noises on this front. The former having committed some $390 million to fund the rollout of vaccinations in the Pacific. While New Zealand has committed to securing enough of a vaccine supply to immunise the entire South Pacific. 

These policies are appreciated and we sincerely extend our utmost gratitude to both countries for their commitments.

But we also must note that there has been no time frame attached to when we can expect vaccines to arrive. 

As we see vaccines already beginning to arrive on the shores of our wealthier neighbours, as they did in Fiji last Friday, we question whether even charity is being dispensed equitably. 

Wealthy countries have a moral responsibility to take care of the world’s poorer nation-states in what is ultimately a global challenge; we are all in this together. 

The post-COVID-19 world will rely on a spirit of internationalism. 

Countries will have to come together to solve common challenges facing humanity as a whole that are not defined by national boundaries. Working as equals on vaccines is the perfect place to start.

By The Editorial Board 14 March 2021, 12:00AM

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