We must not allow COVID-19 vaccines to deepen divisions


We must not allow COVID-19 vaccines to deepen divisions

We must not allow COVID-19 vaccines to deepen divisions
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The race to produce multiple coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines seems to be approaching the finish line, but there is no time for a victory lap — the new challenge will be to vaccinate our world.

Speed, it seems, is the new oil, and the pharmaceutical companies that raced for a vaccine demonstrated hyperspeed, impressive collaboration and extraordinary competence. Now that the scientists have done their job, the question becomes this: How will we distribute limited amounts of vaccines fairly around the world?

The danger is that vaccine distribution will expose and deepen the divide between the global haves and have-nots. After all, the pandemic exposed existing fault lines of inequality worldwide.

The poorest and the vulnerable middle were hit the hardest. They are not the fortunate ones who can carry out their jobs via Zoom. The World Bank estimates that up to 150 million people could fall into extreme poverty in 2021 — the first rise in poverty numbers in two decades.

What is more, those in Asia and Africa who recently managed to lift themselves out of poverty into a precarious lower-middle class have fallen back into it. Meanwhile, those Zoom-ing knowledge-based workers held onto their jobs and watched their investment portfolios inexplicably rise even during a global pandemic.

Wealthier families in advanced economies could afford speedy broadband access and the kind of special tutoring required to ensure their children could maintain education standards while classrooms were closed — others watched their kids fall behind.

The vaccines will go a long way toward returning us to a sense of normality, though the damage caused by the pandemic will last for decades. The other key question is this: Which “worlds” will be saved first?

The vaccines will go a long way toward returning us to a sense of normality, though the damage caused by the pandemic will last for decades.

Afshin Molavi

We could face a situation by the end of 2021, as my colleague Hal Brands of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies put it in a Bloomberg opinion column, “in which COVID-19 has become far less menacing in most rich, advanced countries — which use their economic power to lock up early supplies of vaccine — but rages on in the so-called Global South.”

The People’s Vaccine Alliance notes that, in 67 poorer nations, only one in 10 people will be vaccinated by the end of next year. It also notes that countries that together account for just 14 percent of the world’s population — mostly Western, advanced economies — have already purchased more than half of the available doses of leading vaccines.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which has 95 percent efficacy, is already coursing through the veins of front-line medical workers in the US and the elderly in the UK. Pfizer has pledged 100 million doses to the US.

By the end of 2021, a large proportion of the US population will have been vaccinated and the country will be well on its way to herd immunity. Similar mass vaccination efforts will be under way in Europe throughout the year. Therefore, we can expect the traditional divide between the West and “the rest” to be pronounced.

On the other hand, several countries in the Global South have handled the pandemic very well, notably Vietnam, Taiwan and the UAE, while many of in the north have floundered.

Smaller, well-governed countries might even be better positioned to recover than large Western countries, since the number of vaccine doses required to vaccinate their entire populations are much lower, and their healthcare systems and governments have proved adept at handling the pandemic. For example, the Australia-based Global Response to Infectious Disease Index ranks Singapore, the UAE and Taiwan among the top 10 countries worldwide in terms of response to COVID-19.

But what of the large swaths of Africa, Asia and Latin America that have been hit hard by the pandemic? Will China’s two leading vaccine candidates — from Sinopharm and Sinovac — come to the rescue?

China has set out ambitious goals to vaccinate the world. Sinopharm said it can produce up to a billion doses in the next year, and other promising Chinese vaccines could add another 3 billion doses to world markets.

Both the Pfizer and US-based Moderna vaccines require super-cold storage and complex supply chains. As such, both will be unsuited to mass distribution across the developing world, even if countries could afford their higher prices. Developing nations will, therefore, be largely left with a choice between the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, one of China’s offerings or AstraZeneca, which has promised to deliver an affordable “vaccine for the world.”

By the middle of next year, we are likely to see the divide between vaccine “haves” and “have-nots” starkly displayed. Wealthier countries in the West and the more advanced and better-governed countries in Asia and Latin America will have inoculated large segments of their populations, while other countries will simply be waiting in line.

Sinopharm received a major global public relations boost when the UAE approved use of its vaccine after testing proved it to be 86 percent effective. Across the developing world, the UAE is seen as a well-governed country with effective institutions, so its seal of approval will send a signal to many developing countries that the Sinopharm vaccine is safe and effective.

A clear lesson to be learned from this historic vaccine race is the importance and power of scientific and national collaboration across borders. The same spirit of collaboration will be needed during efforts to distribute the various vaccines around the world.

Morally, politically and economically, we cannot afford existing divisions to grow. By ensuring the effective and fair distribution of vaccines, we will do far more than simply kill a raging virus.

* Afshin Molavi is a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and editor and founder of the New Silk Road Monitor.

Copyright: Syndication Bureau

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