Vaccine equity is not working because besides the role played by the fascists and the authoritarian regimes in denying vaccine access to their population, also, it is behind the cloak of human rights that the western countries are not sharing the knowledge of production and manufacturing of the basic life-saving technologies in the times of pandemic. The G7 Summit pledged to donate one billion vaccine doses, but the world requires solidarity, not charity. Emphasis on human rights, social justice, and saving the lives of people over the profit of pharmaceutical companies is the need of the hour.
On 25 May 2021, the New York Times reported that India’s estimated death toll due to the second wave of COVID-19 in the worst scenario could be 4.2 million with 700.7 million estimated infections. The official record by the Indian government on the same day claimed the reported death figures as 307,231 and 26.9 million reported infection cases.
In June 2021, the G7 summit was held that saw the leaders from the so-called powerful democracies such as the USA, UK, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, Canada, coming together with the delegates from South Africa, Australia, South Korea and India joined in to discuss the global vaccine policy. (Lee and Morton, 2021) The rich nations pledged 1 billion covid vaccine doses to the middle- and lower-income countries. However, they have not waived the vaccine intellectual property rules or the TRIPS law and shied away to uphold their commitments to knowledge and technology sharing for the life-saving vaccines.
The commitment to equality, peace, rights and justice evaporated into the thin air when the world leaders chose to protect the interest of pharmaceutical companies while ignoring the massive void of vaccination rate between the rich and the poor nations. The rhetoric of vaccine equity failed. The economic imperialism fostered by the neoliberal governance of the G7 nations reaffirmed their commitment to the global vaccine apartheid leaving millions in the Global South to die. It became clear that the neoliberal approach being followed by the powerful nations cannot be trusted to resolve the urgent crisis that is affecting the planet. (Woodcock and Merrick, 2021)
Amnesty International condemned the pledge of donating 1 billion doses as a `drop in the ocean’ and argued that this act fails to address the root cause of vaccine apartheid `particularly considering the data that suggests that `G7 countries will have 3 billion doses surplus to requirement by the end of the year’. WHO chief argued that more than 10,000 people are dying everyday but `the G7’s vows will be big help but was too late and too little’. The People’s Vaccine Alliance, which is a coalition of several human rights organizations, has calculated that in case the current trend continued, the poorest nations will take 57 years to vaccinate their population and that the target vaccination could only be completed by the end of 2078. (Oxfam International, 2021)
The economic imperialism is exemplified by the fact that the EU has already made deal with the big pharma companies for 1.8 million booster shots when the continents such as Africa could vaccinate only 2 percent of its population. The failure to keep promises to end COVID vaccination equity was overshadowed by vaccine nationalism. (Ghosh, 2021) The rich nations are hoarding vaccines as well as hegemonizing technology of production while protecting the economic interests of big pharmaceutical while putting the poor countries in the position of dependence.
The approach of privatization of health and education has weakened the infrastructure and service delivery in the Global South. Despite the knowledge that the health systems in the Third World countries are hardly robust and are designed in a way that they cannot bear the burden at a large scale, the G7 nations in collusion with the WTO and other such organizations are forcing vaccine scarcity, excluding and otherizing the people in the Global South leading to genocide.
This vaccine imperialism hence is reifying the binary that exists in an already unequal, hierarchical world that is polarized into the wealthy, resourceful nations versus the poor nations, the elite versus the other, the colonized (economic imperialism) versus the colonizer, the vaccinated versus the vulnerable, the West versus the rest. The intent of avoiding the question of equal access to vaccine equity shows how the neoliberal imperial powers are protecting the economic interests of mighty corporations while overlooking the lives of the millions of marginalized people of the Global South endangering their lives. (Nigam 2021)
Solidarity for Human Rights Not Charity
The charity approach of the neoliberal economy failed to realize the counters of justice, equality and human rights as promised at the end of World War II when the leaders of different nations came together under the common umbrella of human rights to put together the promising framework of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948.
The grand utopian promise to vaccinate the world by the end of the year 2022 was broken when the rich nations failed to fulfill their international obligation to fulfill the commitments made by the Gavi network in 2020. The COVAX launched in 2020 was based on the idea of solidarity and equity and meant to procure and supply vaccines for all globally where the rich countries agreed to share the vaccine doses (Usher AD 2021) As an idealistic approach it was hailed as the `global heroic effort’. The goal set by COVAX was to ensure equitable access to vaccines the world over, and yet, till June 2021 it has delivered only 4 percent vaccine in the Lower-income and Middle-income countries whereas the top ten countries have administered 75 percent vaccine. Subsequently, people across 92 Low-income and middle-income countries are being deprived of the early access to vaccine. The grand idea of COVAX could not work because the rich countries engaged in vaccine nationalism using their massive buying power along with the slow mobilization of funds for COVAX while widening inequities.
The Neoliberal Approach and the White Man’s Burden
In his book on The White Man’s Burden, William Easterly (2006) discussed the role of the planners and the searchers and argued that the billions of dollars as foreign aid could not improve the situation of poor in the Third World countries because of the faulty top-down approach carried out by the planners. This approach overlooks the fact that poverty cannot be ended without addressing the structural inequalities that exist all over the world. Posner (2014) pointed out that Easterly does not “oppose regular markets or liberal democracy, nor does he oppose foreign aid. He instead attacked the ideology of `the planners’ – people who believed that the west can impose a political and economic blueprint that will advance wellbeing in other countries”.
In other words, the neoliberal economic approach being pushed over decades has not helped people in poor countries. Neither the civilizing mission of 19th century imperialists could end oppression then nor could the neoliberal approach adopted by the modern states based on charity or the `ivory tower planning’ could resolve the issue of wealth inequalities. This approach failed to acknowledge the fact that the poor do not require dole from the rich but the need is to address the issue of structural inequality that exists and create a huge gap between the rich and poor. Poverty is a situation of injustice; it therefore, needs appropriate resolution. The unequal situation exists because the one percent hoards the majority of the world’s wealth versus the ninety-nine percent who work hard and yet remain poor. To eliminate the world’s poverty, the need is to redistribute the wealth – not through charity or aid but as a matter of substantive equal rights of all.
A similar approach applies to vaccine production, manufacturing and distribution. Vaccine colonialism proposed by Bill Gates and supported by WTO promotes monopoly of the corporations over the health system and excludes people of the Global South to access life-saving vaccines. Unfortunately, this faulty approach is being upheld by the leaders of G7 countries. The opinions of the billionaire corporations prevail in the global health decision-making while risking human lives and prolonging the pandemic.
Accountability approach at the global level
Lant Pritchett (2013) while giving examples of development practices being followed in South Asia argued that the state’s capacity can be built by replacing bad institutions with good (folk) practices rather than imposing a rigid formula unsuited to the local conditions. He asserted that the systemic isomorphic mimicry wherein the outward forms (appearances and structure) of functional state and organizations are adopted to camouflage a persistent lack of function. He argued that,
“most states in the developing world lack the capability to implement even the most basic functions of the government. This lack of implementation capability creates a world in which policy formula have little to do with the folk reality – either the lived reality of those inside the governmental organizations, or the lived reality of citizens interacting with the state”. (p. 5)
Similarly, in terms of vaccine access at the global level, the G7 nations who stood as the model of enlightenment and are hailed as the originators of human rights approach, in the cloak of charity are defying basic human values while ignoring the impact of their actions on the lives of millions. Adoption of trade practice while dealing with the life-saving vaccine is unjust and anti-people. Wealthy nations, though have resources, but perhaps, lack the motivation to carry out the declared policy goals, or under the pressure from lobbyists from the big pharma companies, are ignoring the rights of people in the Global South. The weak motivation and interests of G7 nations manifest in different ways. They withdrew their commitments from the COVAX plan decided last year. These nations do not do what they need to do.
Going further, the US has rather enforced sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba when President Joe Biden shut the COVAX access. The Foreign Minister of Venezuela argued that obstructing people’s access to the vaccine during the time of pandemic is a crime against humanity. (Lennard, 2021) The approach they took is counter-productive to their goals and commitments. From persuasion to political favors, various factors influence the outcome. To overcome the problems, Pritchett (2013) emphasized accountability, consolidation of struggles, local solutions for local problems among others, but, more importantly, the states “to reach capabilities to meet the needs and demands of their citizens”. (p.33) Applying these suggestions to the given context, there is a need to see a correlation between the accountability of the rich states and the needs of the citizens of the world.
Vaccine Solidarity and Vaccine Internationalism: Searching Alternatives
COVID-19 has highlighted the ugly fissures in the unequal hierarchical world. (Nigam 2020) It has shown how vaccine nationalism is further widening inequalities between the resourceful and the powerless. Worldwide, citizens, to cope with the weak capabilities and capacities of their states (authoritarian fascists states in some cases) as well as the arbitrary powers of the G7 nations are trying to cope by building solidarities. For instance, in Brazil, citizens are protesting against the state’s pandemic response including lack of coordinated action and lapse on the part of the state when it failed to order vaccines. (Aljazeera.com, 2021)
Also, when the COVAX scheme has almost collapsed, the Progressive International Summit provides an example where people across the world are coming together to search for alternatives. Against vaccine inequality, several politicians from different countries in the Global South such as Cuba, Venezuela, Vietnam, Kenya, Argentina along with Kerala are coming together in solidarity to promote vaccine internationalism and to undo vaccine apartheid. It is believed that an agreement on South-South cooperation for future speedy vaccine production and sharing partnership could reduce dependence on rich nations to create a New International Health Order to replace inegalitarian, imperial neo-economic order. (Outlook 2021)
Against the fascists authoritarian regimes that are fostering vaccine inequities and inequalities, a sustained common social movement may go a long way to push rich countries to waive intellectual property rules. This may be done when people unite, organize and mobilize to put human life before profit to end causes of preventable deaths. Beyond boardrooms, government offices, or Kafkaesque bureaucracy, an alternative vision could perhaps go a long way to tackle injustices and adopt a human rights vision that keeps the need of people in the Global South in perspective. What is required is solidarity and cooperation among the people across nations to develop an equitable sustainable framework to end the pandemic.
Aljazeera.com (2021) Brazil passes 500,000 COVID deaths as anti-gov’t protestors rally, June 19, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/6/19/brazil-passes-500000-covid-deaths-as-anti-govt-protesters-rally
Amnesty International (2021) G7: Pledge to share one billion doses with poor countries is a drop in the ocean, June 11, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2021/06/g7-pledge-to-share-one-billion-vaccine-doses-with-poorer-countries-is-a-drop-in-the-ocean/
Easterly William (2006) White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s efforts to aid the rest have done so much ill and so little good, Penguin Books, New York
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Outlook (2021) Solidarity, Not Charity can fix COVID Vaccine Inequality: Jereme Corbyn, Interview with Preetha Nair, June 16 https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/world-news-solidarity-not-charity-can-fix-covid-vaccine-inequality-jeremy-corbyn/385298
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Woodcock A and R Merrick (2021) G7 Summit: Cornwall gathering branded `colossal failure’ as promises on climate, aid and vaccines fall short, The Independent.co.uk, June 14, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/g7-summit-climate-aid-vaccines-b1865119.html
Shalu Nigam is an advocate, researcher, and activist working at the intersection of gender, law, governance, and human rights issues. She has done PhD in Social Work and has obtained a degree in law. Her publications include The Founding Mothers: 15 Women Architects of the Indian Constitution (coauthor, 2016) and Women and Domestic Violence Law in India: A Quest for Justice (2019). Her forthcoming title is Domestic Violence Law in India: Myths and Misogyny (2021). She has been a regular contributor to countercurrents.org and has published essays in journals such as the South Asia Journal, Social Action, International Journal of Gender and Women’s Studies, and Legal News and Views.