Old colonial lines are being reinforced. As western nations edge closer to effectively vaccinating their populations, much of the rest of the planet languishes in fear of new Covid variants and the long-term impacts of the pandemic and its economic consequences. The US has acquired enough vaccines for three times its population. At the same time, according to Unicef, 130 countries had yet to administer a single dose of vaccine as of mid-February. Some countries aren’t poised to see widespread vaccine access until 2023. While there are questions of unequal distribution within western countries like the US and UK, the larger problem is how the greed of governments – and the corporations that bully them – has caused a new and dangerous form of global inequality.
The US is, for lack of a better term, hoarding vaccines. It began with Donald Trump and his refusal to participate in Covax, a global initiative that aims to ensure the distribution of 2bn vaccines to countries in need. Joe Biden joined Covax but has for the most part deprioritized the organization for the sake of ensuring that Americans are vaccinated first and foremost – even if that means scores of vaccines go unused. After some criticism, Biden agreed to distribute some superfluous vaccines to Mexico and Canada. This is less an act of generosity than an act of self-interest, intended to ensure that the US vaccination process isn’t undone by having unvaccinated nations at its borders. In true American fashion, these vaccines are essentially loans.
Canada, too, is prioritizing itself at the expense of other nations. Its own vaccine production was hamstrung by the privatization of a government-owned vaccine lab. Despite considerable international criticism, Canada decided to use Covax for its own benefit – to acquire 1.9m vaccine doses essentially intended for poorer nations.
The rest of the west is engaging in similar behavior. As a February article in the Conversation described:
The EU has ordered 1.6bn doses for its adult population of roughly 375 million … the UK has ordered 219m full vaccinations for its 54 million adults (a surplus of 165m), while Canada has ordered 188m full vaccinations for its 32 million adults (an excess of 156 million).
This can’t solely be blamed on the countries themselves; many of the vaccines require two doses, and having some buffer may make sense. Yet it is clear that these countries have gone overboard by a collective hundreds of millions. Corporations are fueling much of the inequality that we’re facing and creating a false scarcity for what should be a global public good. Vaccines could be in production across the planet, but patents owned by pharmaceutical companies are preventing this from happening. Oxford University initially promised to create an open-source vaccine that could be reproduced by anyone with the capacity to do so. This would allow countries on the receiving end of decades and centuries of colonialism, and its modern form perpetrated primarily by corporations, to produce their own vaccines. Unfortunately, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which practices its own form of colonialism by manipulating the healthcare systems of entire nations, intervened and pushed Oxford to sign an exclusive deal with the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, giving it sole rights without any commitment to keep vaccine prices low. While there are many outlandish conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and vaccines, this clear, factual harm has attracted little fervor.
There is a clear moral imperative for a fairer vaccine distribution and the release of vaccine patents. The wealth of Europe and the USs was built and is still maintained by exploitation of the global south, and western countries are more likely to be able to withstand the long-term effects of Covid. Less wealthy countries will suffer crippling economic consequences and likely be further pushed into the cycle of endless debt from loans that would be reparations if we lived in a more just world. Relatedly, letting Covid continue to spread anywhere on the planet increases the likelihood of the virus mutating and coming back to bite countries like the US which, aside from vaccine acquisition, have absolutely botched their Covid response. This increases the risk of a nightmare scenario – a permanent pandemic.
We are dangerously close to an era in which vaccinated and unvaccinated countries become a new layer of the have and have-nots, the colonizer and the colonized, the wealthy and the poor. We must resist this new apartheid and instead invest in a global vaccine solution that breaks from the last few centuries of exploitative power dynamics.