Vaccine access for me, but not for thee

Haley Beardsley, Contributing Writer

U.S. President Joe Biden announced last Thursday that his administration had finalized the purchase of 200 million COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer, granting the United States the capacity to vaccinate every adult citizen. On the same day, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, reported that it would be “open season” for the vaccine in April. Moreover, he stated that all Americans — of all ages and health conditions — will be able to receive the vaccine by April.

While the optimism is enticing, I’ve reached a point of disbelief and despair that even 200 million doses of vaccine couldn’t heal. Americans have weathered countless promises of a “return to normal” since the onset of the pandemic last March — Easter, Halloween and New Year’s Eve were each posed as end-dates to this seemingly endless natural disaster. The most recent hope has been a little more sobering — “by the end of 2021” — but it’s still hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when 658 Pennsylvanians were claimed by COVID-19 just this week. Still more worrying, 31 percent of citizens are hesitant to receive the vaccine and 13 percent outright refuse to accept it, if offered.

However, perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the Biden administration’s recent purchase is its depressing implications for the Global South. COVID-19 struck a world already plagued by inequality — where the richest one percent of people have twice as much wealth as nearly 6.9 billion others. In fact, according to Oxfam International, “[t]he coronavirus pandemic has the potential to lead to an increase in inequality in almost every country at once, the first time this has happened since records began.”

Unsurprisingly, Israel, the United Kingdom, United States, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Canada, France and Netherlands – all members of the so-called “Global North” — have administered the highest amount of vaccines per 100 people, with most of the non-Western world lagging well behind. While the United States sits at 16.6 vaccinations per 100 people, India struggles at a mere 0.7. In addition to the pressing weights of race, gender and wealth inequalities, the world is now faced with immunity inequality — the wealthiest maintain premier access to vaccinations and medications while the rest of the world suffers.

Yet Biden can limit the perpetuation of immunity inequality that is going to cripple these nations for decades to come. In October 2020, the Trump administration blocked a proposal by India and South Africa to the World Trade Organization (WTO), entreating it to suspend its enforcement protocols on key intellectual property regarding COVID-19. If accepted, the proposal would allow the WTO to issue a general waiver on all patents and other intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccinations and medical technologies. The production of a cheap, generic vaccine could spread and be reproduced natively throughout the Global South. Such a dire situation should drastically shift the global perspective and send a clear message that the vaccine is a global common good, rather than a commodity only available to the rich, developed nations of the world.

Nearly 100 countries have signed onto the proposition, but the majority of the Global North has abstained from or openly opposed the proposal; however, discussion will almost certainly arise at the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) meeting in mid-March of this year. Meanwhile, Biden has the ability to share the United States’ enormous stash of supplies at any moment. Our actions in the near future could serve as the catalyst for the rest of the Global North, and quite possibly lead to equitable, global vaccine access.

The leaders of wealthy countries face a decision: continue to pad the bulging pockets of pharmaceutical companies, or relinquish nationalistic vaccine profiteering and aid the world’s most vulnerable people in the Global South.

In a July 2020 conversation with Ady Barkan, a healthcare activist, Biden was asked if he would commit to sharing technology if the United States found the vaccine first, to which he responded, “Absolutely, positively. This is the only humane thing in the world to do.” Yet, here we are, hundreds of millions of vaccines claimed already, ensuring that the Global South must wait months or years before beginning their path towards immunity.

So while Biden is purchasing 200 million vaccines and promising that all American adults will be vaccinated by the end of 2021, South Africa is faced with new variants of the virus and the Third World continues to struggle. We all must be optimistic about the future of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we also must take the vaccine for what it is: another instance of United States magnifying global inequality.

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