The global fears over the emergence of Omicron, the new and more virulent coronavirus variant, once again highlight an often neglected aspect of the pandemic: Vaccine inequality. The widening gulf between the rich and the poor nations in terms of inoculation coverage makes the fight against the virus less effective. Access to life-saving vaccines makes all the difference. The nature of such pandemics is that no one can be safe until everyone is safe. Despite scientists warning that the unprotected hotspots could breed dangerous new variants of the virus, the rich countries have largely ignored it. Though a staggering 27 million Covid-19 vaccine doses are administered each day across the world, most of them are going to citizens of high income and upper middle-income countries. According to data from the World Health Organization, over 64% of people from high-income nations have received at least one dose of the vaccine, compared with less than 8% of people from low-income countries. Ever since the vaccines were first rolled out, the rich countries have offered generous incentives to get their citizens vaccinated, then given them booster shots, even as the vast majority of citizens in poor countries have not received their first doses. Covax, the global initiative for rich countries to donate to poorer ones, has been slow, sluggish and far below expectations. Negotiations at the World Trade Organization, spearheaded by India and South Africa, to waive vaccine patents and allow lower-income countries to manufacture generic versions of Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines have been deadlocked for months, due to opposition from the European Union, United Kingdom and Switzerland, which host the headquarters for major vaccine manufacturers.
The emergence of new mutations must infuse a sense of urgency about the need to end the disparity in global vaccinations. It is deplorable that wealthy nations like the United States have been stockpiling vaccines, much beyond their requirement, exacerbating vaccine inequality. According to estimates by London-based analytics company, Airfinity, nearly 60% of the vaccines produced in the world are bought by a small group of countries, including the US, UK, EU, Canada and Japan. Between a third to half of those vaccines are hoarded rather than used, with the stockpile expected to grow to an estimated 1.2 billion unused doses by the end of the year. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed global inequities in a distinct, acute way. The failings of the Covax programme, logistical issues and governments’ own inadequacies are making a bad situation worse. The problems in delivery mechanism, healthcare infrastructure and vaccine hesitancy have only deepened the crisis. The poor countries, which account for 80% of the global population, would remain at risk of deadly Covid-19 waves in the absence of funding for speedier distribution, patent waivers and a non-profit model extended to all western vaccine makers.
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