In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic took the world by surprise and changed our lives intensely. As many people would tune into the news and see the daily number of new cases and deaths recorded increase, there was a sense of fear that centered around the uncertainty of death, isolation and loss of normalcy. As daunting as it seemed, these news outlets would always instill some hope into viewers’ minds after sharing the gruesome facts about the seriousness of this pandemic: the COVID-19 vaccine, a scientific solution proven with facts and data that has been in the works after the disease, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), was discovered to be caused by the coronavirus in 2003. This glimmer of hope was so widely broadcasted to be the key back to normal life. So why is it that nearly 10 months after the vaccine became readily available to the public, countries around the world struggle to distribute it and have low vaccination rates?
The answer to this lies in a term called global vaccine inequity. Vaccine equity refers to how all the people in the world should have equal access to the COVID-19 vaccine and the inequity explains how varied factors like socioeconomic status, race, gender and more interfere with this goal. While higher socioeconomic status countries like the United States continue to garner access to this vaccine and distribute it within their country and even throw away leftover doses, lower socioeconomic status countries in Africa and Asia struggle to vaccinate more than 5% of their population. As a result, these countries have damaging surges of different variants that leave them with horrific numbers of death and total cases.
World Health Organization (WHO) head, Dr. Tedros Adhanom, describes this vaccine inequity as a “moral catastrophe.” Richer countries like Israel, Canada, and the United States buy vaccine supplies for booster shots and shots for the younger population without leaving any to spare for the lower socioeconomic countries. Dr. Adhanom pleaded with the richer countries to donate these doses to less fortunate countries to help them combat this disease. Yet now, six months after this plea, the United States’ FDA is approving booster shots and is now distributing them to the older population, while destitute countries suffer with low vaccination rates and the spread of this disease.
I agree with Dr. Adhanom’s sentiment. This inequity is not something that is foreign to the world, and for a country as individualistic as the United States, it’s not surprising to see the lack of donation of this life-saving vaccine to disadvantaged countries. A simple example of this was in July 2021, when the world witnessed one of the worst COVID-19 surges in India. Every day, I would tune into the news and hear the horrifying numbers that India would report, reaching its peak at this time with 400,000+ cases in one day. Bodies were piling up outside to be cremated, contributing to the ongoing pollution crisis in India. Numbers were also predicted to be five times higher than what India was announcing due to the lack of reports. I was sitting down in my living room, looking at the TV, feeling hopeless as I watched my home country slowly fall apart economically, environmentally and collectively. As an 18-year-old in America, I was fully vaccinated while there were elderly people in India dying on makeshift beds outside of hospitals, all because India doesn’t have access to the decreasing vaccine supply.
Big pharmaceutical companies making these vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna, are playing a game of Monopoly with other countries to withhold information about the manufacturing process of the vaccine. A proposal given by the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) spoke out about a crucial aspect of mandating a technology transfer of how to produce the vaccine. These big pharmaceutical companies and others with high influence, such as Bill Gates, are speaking against this policy to maintain the prices the U.S. is selling the vaccines at. This is because the U.S. wants to remain as the primary distributor of the vaccine and not have the competition of countries sell them at lower prices. With no other way of manufacturing vaccines themselves, and the heightened prices that the U.S. distributes them at, these underdeveloped countries are succumbing to the hands of the rich.
As the virus continues, it moves quicker than the distribution of vaccines globally. If these vaccines were equally distributed, family members, front line workers and high-risk people all around the world could have been vaccinated. As I urge everyone to get vaccinated, I also encourage everyone to donate a vaccination through GoGiveOne, a vaccination donation website sponsored by the World Health Organization. The pandemic will only continue to progress unless we all work together to eliminate vaccine inequity.