Op-Ed: Let’s talk about vaccine equality

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Many Canadians are tired of COVID-19 mandates and infection rates, but although our governments continually promise an end in sight, the Global South is not lucky enough to have this hope.

A map demonstrating the Global North (more developed countries) vs. the Global South (less developed countries). (Royal Geography Society/Website)

While many Canadians and Global North nations are rolling up their sleeves to receive their third dose of the COVID-19 vaccination, the Global South is still begging for their first doses.

Through governments concentrating vaccinations solely in the Global North, new variants that are more contagious and cause more harm will continue to emerge. Until this issue is resolved, the pandemic will not end.

Vaccination statistics in the Global South

(Rajesh Jantilal/Getty Images)

By the end of 2021, 6.5 billion doses of the vaccine had been delivered internationally. The United Nations reported that 1.5 million vaccines are produced a month, highlighting that it is not an issue of supply but an issue of equal distribution.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that to reach herd immunity of COVID-19, at least 90 per cent of the world needs to be fully immunized.

The Global South makes up 82 per cent of the world’s population, but only 9.4 per cent of the Global South has been given one dose of a COVID-19 vaccination. Global South countries such as South Sudan, Yemen, Chad, Haiti, and Burundi have less than 3 per cent of their population fully vaccinated.

To learn more about vaccine rates, visit the New York Times vaccination tracker. 

UNBSJ comparative politics and international relations professor Dr. Leslie Jeffrey says, “Vaccine inequity is a microcosm of many other inequities between the Global North and Global South like climate change impacts and economic inequality, but in the case of COVID, it’s pretty obvious how, in a globalized world, unless everyone is protected, no one is protected.”

Patents

(UNICEF/Francis Kokoroko)

The primary “big pharma” companies that hold the rights are Moderna, BioNTech, and Pfizer. A big issue facing vaccine inequity is the right to produce vaccines in the Global South.  

A significant aspect of creating vaccine equity is producing vaccines in the Global South, but patents are destroying the hopes of doing this. In October 2020, the World Trade Organization (WTO) opposed wavering the intellectual property rights of vaccines. The proposal was co-sponsored by 64 of its members. Although patents are not the sole reason for vaccine inequity, a significant barrier would be eliminated by releasing the intellectual property rights.

The WTO proposed a solution to this. By signing onto the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), nations can pressure “big pharma” to release the intellectual rights to vaccination technology. However, the Global North has continuously struck down the TRIPs waiver.

The emergence of new variants from the Global South

(Reuters/Francis Kokoroko)

The Omicron variant is quickly sweeping across Canada, causing spikes in cases and for UNBSJ to do remote learning for the first couple of weeks of the winter semester.

In a South African laboratory, Omicron was first detected in November 2021. Quickly, case numbers spiked in the country and Western nations enforced travel bans to stop the spread. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was quick to blame vaccine inequity for the new variant, saying that the emergence of Omicron should be a “… wake up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue”. 

Western countries continue to fail to live up to vaccine donation promises, leaving many Global South countries incredibly vulnerable to new and dangerous variants.

Western countries are quick to impose travel bans on Global South countries who see emergences of new variants. Still, these variants are only mutating because the Global North is not providing vaccinations against them. “The virus will continue to grow and mutate and travel. Viruses don’t respect borders,” Dr. Jeffrey notes.

COVAX promises

In April 2020, the WHO, the Centre for Epidemic Preparedness and Innovation (CEPI), Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and UNICEF set up a joint venture called COVAX. COVAX works to supply and distribute vaccines equally across the world.

Western nations have promised to donate to the Global South but have not delivered a large percentage of their promises. At the end of 2021, Canada had only granted 12.7 of the 50 million doses promised, although they have exceeded their financial donations by 395 million dollars.

Half of Canada’s money has been donated to secure vaccines for the Global South, but the other half has been donated to ensure vaccines for Canadians. The ten wealthiest countries globally are currently hoarding 80 per cent of all available vaccines. All eligible Canadians can get a vaccine, yet only 1 in 500 people has had vaccinations in places like Bolivia.

Dr. Jeffrey notes that “…Global North countries, the wealthy countries, have been focusing on their efforts only on getting vaccines to their citizens, buying up supplies, and only providing a small number (sometimes on the verge of expiry) to poorer countries. That not only hurts the poorer countries, but it also hurts all of us in the end”.

What to do

It may seem like university students cannot help the situation of vaccine inequity. Although it requires transformative policy-making, pressuring your elected representatives can be influential. Vaccine inequity cannot be something the Global North puts on the back burner because without living up to COVAX promises, the pandemic will not end.

Donating a vaccine is a cheap way to do this. The UNICEF give a vax campaign contributes vaccines to the Global South directly because “no one is safe until we’re all safe.” It costs only 4.81 dollars to immunize someone against COVID-19 fully.

Sign petitions

Another effective way to help end vaccine inequity is pressuring big pharma to share the intellectual property rights of vaccine technology to produce them in the south. Amnesty International has a great email reference to send to BioNTech, Pfizer, and Moderna. Please put your name and email, and everything will be ready for you to send it.

Write to your representatives

Letting your Members of Parliament know that this issue is essential to address is vital. Did you know that it is completely free to send mail to the House of Commons?

Write: [Name of Member of Parliament] House of Commons: Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, K1A 0A6.

For a complete list of ministers and elected representatives, click here. For a complete list of Cabinet Ministers, click here.

Vaccine inequity is not an issue specific to the Global South. If the Global North does not adequately address this issue, the pandemic will not end. COVID-19 does not respect borders.