The consequences of COVID-19 vaccine inequality

Over half of the world’s countries have embarked on vaccination campaigns in a bid to halt the COVID-19 pandemic. Constraints to equal vaccination are, however, hindering the effectiveness of vaccination plans even within wealthier countries. Without equal distribution, there is a strong likelihood the pandemic will drag on further, impacting even those who are vaccinated.

By Eeva Ruuska

With a third wave of COVID-19 looming around the corner and more transmissible strains of the virus emerging, governments are in a race to get more people inoculated. At the end of February, some 108 countries had begun the inoculations, with North America and Europe leading the race, while Africa and Oceania were lagging furthest behind. Countries such as Israel and the United Arab Emirates have already inoculated over half of their population. While the United Kingdom, the United States, Chile and some European Union countries are set to complete vaccinating priority groups by the second quarter, and most of the population by the end of the year.

Some of these countries have been blamed for “vaccine hoarding” as they have secured more inoculations than needed. Meanwhile, many countries in South Asia, Africa and South America are reliant on COVAX, a global vaccination effort led by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Those nations reliant on COVAX, will not achieve mass COVID-19 immunisation until at least 2024.

Following manufacturing issues, vaccine production is gradually ramping up as of early March, with Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine joining other approved vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, Oxford-AstraZeneca, along with their Russian and Chinese rivals Sputnik V, Sinopharm and Sinovac. While this raises hopes that life could eventually return to “normal”, it is hindered by the unequal access that low-income countries and more vulnerable parts of societies have to a vaccine.

As a form of “vaccine nationalism”, some countries have set export bans on vaccines or pledged to only vaccinate legal residents. On the other hand, some countries are using “vaccine diplomacy” to boost their geopolitical position. China has taken the lead in supplying protective equipment and medical supplies to many African and Asian countries, while Russia is doing the same in Latin America. 

Cuba intends to promote “vaccine tourism” by offering free shots to all travellers once their Soberana vaccine is cleared. Countries dependent on tourism, like Greece and Spain, support the introduction of vaccine certificates, which could help smooth a return to global travel. Other countries however claim that such certificates would only exacerbate inequality as long as the access to vaccines remains unmatched.

So called “vaccine apartheid” is also taking place, with some countries such as South Africa being forced to pay a higher price for vaccines, allegedly due to a “lack of contribution to research and development”. Meanwhile, the vaccination success story of Israel is overshadowed by the country’s insistence of withholding the vaccine from Palestinians.

Within many countries, residents of remote or poor communities could struggle to travel to get inoculated amid economic and lockdown burdens. Ethnic minorities are also less likely to get vaccinated, due to historic mistreatment and distrust of authorities, while the undocumented, homeless and others with no electronic means of contact or registration could be overlooked. 

All of these constraints to equal vaccination are hindering the effectiveness of vaccination plans even within wealthier countries. The longer large areas of the globe remain unvaccinated, the greater the chance of  new mutations developing that do not respond to vaccines, potentially allowing the virus to infect people that may have already been vaccinated. 

 Eeva Ruuska is a Mexico-based political and security risk analyst covering Latin America.

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