The rich must do more to ensure the poorest get vaccinated
One of the most important outcomes of this month’s G7 summit in the UK was that, after more than a year, this group of some of the wealthiest nations in the world finally pledged to donate 1 billion coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccines to low-income countries. Delayed it may be, but the assistance is welcome, especially as Covax — the program to provide vaccines to poor countries — has been stuttering of late due to a lack of doses.
So the G7’s pledge to supply 870 million additional doses, on top of the 130 million already promised, will boost Covax and offer a glimmer of hope to the poorest nations, which have so far struggled to get hold of vaccine doses, while the richest nations have rapidly progressed their vaccination programs.
The need of the poor nations stands at close to 11 billion doses, while Covax has so far only managed to organize pledges for 2.7 billion, leaving a gap of well over 8 billion. The rich countries need to offer much more than the billion doses promised so far.
Not only do the poor countries need more doses, they also need them more quickly. For now, the G7 says it will deliver at least half of the pledged doses by the end of 2021. This speed is nowhere near what is needed on several counts. First and foremost, though the situation may be relatively under control in most of the rich nations, the pandemic is still raging in many other parts of the world. Indeed, there have already been more COVID-19 deaths this year than in all of 2020 and the number of fresh daily cases is still close to 400,000, mostly in developing nations.
As global leaders have said time and again, no one is safe until everyone is safe. And in the face of a virus that is continuously evolving, with new variants emerging all the time, the sole guarantee of safety is timely vaccination.
To ramp up the availability of vaccines for poor nations, the easiest option is that countries that have ordered and received excessive doses should donate supplies to the countries that are struggling to get hold of any. For instance, with a population of barely 450 million, the EU has ordered almost 2.9 billion doses, more than the entire number pledged to Covax, which covers 92 nations with a combined population of nearly 5 billion.
The EU is not the only one to have ordered much more than its population’s needs. The UK has ordered 517 million doses, nearly nine times its population, and at least three times as many as it may eventually need. Since it is not possible to ramp up vaccine production overnight, the best option would be for rich nations to send all the doses they can spare to poor nations immediately — not just when they are close to their expiration dates.
However, the challenge for low-income countries does not stop with access to vaccines. There are other issues that can derail even the best assistance plans. First and foremost is the poor state of healthcare infrastructure in most of these countries.
Another challenge lies in transporting the vaccines safely from the manufacturing facility to the points where they can be administered. The vaccines need at least basic cold storage facilities, which are not widely available in poorer nations. Moreover, many of these nations need help in boosting their healthcare infrastructure, which is creaky at best in places where it is available. In many places, it is entirely missing. For example, according to the World Bank, Japan has about 13 hospital beds per 1,000 people, while Mali has just 0.1.
The best option would be for rich nations to send all the doses they can spare to poor nations immediately.
Ranvir S. Nayar
The situation gets no better when it comes to doctors or other personnel who can administer vaccines and watch for any immediate complications. Germany has 4.3 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants, while the Democratic Republic of the Congo has 0.1.
Another issue that has not been addressed so far is the vaccination of people living in conflict zones. As there are currently conflicts or even civil wars taking place in many parts of Africa and Asia, little thought seems to have been given as to how to get vaccines delivered to these areas or how to inoculate the people, keeping the beneficiaries as well as the medical personnel safe. Close to a billion people inhabit these zones and the risk of the virus spreading through such populations will remain high unless they are vaccinated along with the rest of the world.
Despite these challenges, Covax remains severely underfunded. The G7 and other countries, plus companies and the world’s wealthiest individuals, need to come forward and plug the financial gap at the earliest opportunity — not just for the safety of the poor, but for their own sakes too.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.