As the world grapples with the onslaught of multiple waves of the coronavirus pandemic, the widening gulf between the rich and poor nations in terms of access to life-saving vaccines is a cause of major concern. The nature of such pandemics is that no one can be safe until everyone is safe. The World Health Organization-backed programme — Covax — is facing severe supply constraints. This has exacerbated the troubles faced by the poor countries in accessing vaccines. Even within India, some States are leading in inoculation drive while others are lagging. Though the Covax initiative, supported by India, was aimed at ensuring that the vaccines are supplied to poor countries without any hassles, the ground realities are not very encouraging. According to the data published by UNICEF, rich nations have cornered the benefits under the WHO programme. Of the 50 countries that have received the largest number of vaccines through the initiative, five — South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada, UK, and Australia — have a per capita GDP of over $20,000. So far, Covax has delivered 136 million vaccines to 135 countries. Of this, 16 million doses were supplied to 24 countries that would be categorised as low income by the World Bank criteria. The Covax initiative has set a goal of vaccinating more than 20% of its member-nations’ population with one dose. However, out of 114 countries in the poor and middle-income categories, only 13 have met the target. The export controls imposed by India on the domestic manufacturers have been one of the reasons for the vaccine shortfall.
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. From Africa to Latin America, Asia and the Caribbean, the impact of the vaccine inequity is clear and undeniable. The problems in delivery mechanism, healthcare infrastructure and vaccine hesitancy have only deepened the crisis. Even if Covax meets its goal to vaccinate 20% of the population in its 92 target countries, that will still be short of the level of immunity that experts say is needed to end the pandemic. The poor countries, which account for 80% of the global population, will 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. The situation is particularly grim because of the rapidly spreading Delta variant against which the existing vaccines are less effective. Unless manufacturing and supply can be distributed more evenly, it will take at least two more years before a significant chunk of people in the lowest-income countries is vaccinated.
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