COVID-19 vaccination programs are moving slowly in poor nations, threatening the world’s health and raising risks for rich countries’ economies.

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Sometime very soon, the world will reach a significant milestone in its battle to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic: vaccinations will outstrip cases being treated, at just over 100 million each.

Around the world, there will be a huge sense of relief and satisfaction among governments, universities and pharmaceutical companies, which have come together to create, test, produce, distribute and start administering a huge number of safe vaccines in what has been record time.

Unfortunately, a quick end to the global pandemic is by no means guaranteed. That is because there is a lack of global vaccine equity when comparing the citizens of richer, more economically developed countries in the Global North with those of lower-income countries in the Global South.

Rich countries are rolling out COVID-19 vaccination programs.

“Vaccine equity isn’t just a slogan; it protects people everywhere,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), wrote recently.

Since 90-year-old grandmother Margaret Keenan became the first person in the world to be vaccinated in Coventry, England on December 8, the United Kingdom has been at the forefront of the world’s unprecedented mass vaccination drive.

According to Our World in Data, the UK had administered at least one vaccine dose to about 15% of its total population by February 1. In the United Arab Emirates, this figure has already reached about 35%, and the current world leader is Israel with a whopping 59%.

The European Union and the United States have been hampered by distribution delays in their hundreds of millions of doses on order, but they have still reached about 10% and 3%, respectively, of their large, widely distributed populations.

It’s very different in poor countries.

What about poorer countries? According to Our World in Data, vaccines have so far reached only about 1% of the population in Brazil, 0.5% in Oman and 0.22% in Indonesia.

In Africa, official data is scarce, but as recently as January 18, the WHO reported that among low-income countries, only Guineans had received any doses at all and the recipients totaled a mere 25 — not millions, not thousands, just 25 people including the president.

Since then, a few other African countries, including Egypt, Morocco and Seychelles, have begun vaccinating citizens, but most other nations have not yet received a single dose. Badly hit South Africa, which took part in the Novavax vaccine trials, has just received its first one million doses, but they cannot be administered for at least another few weeks due to the need for further testing and approvals.

‘The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure.’

WHO chief Tedros blames richer countries for over-ordering, price competition and hoarding, creating the disequilibrium. A mere 16% of the world’s population live in rich countries, but they have bought up some 60% of the world’s vaccine supply.

For example, Canada has ordered 362 million doses, nearly 10 times the number of its inhabitants, while the African Union has ordered 270 million doses, which equals only about 20% of the total population across the continent.

“It’s not right that younger, healthier adults in rich countries are vaccinated before health workers and older people in poorer countries,” Tedros said. “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure, and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”

He and others warn of a vicious cycle in which existing threats and new mutations in unprotected populations could re-infect the rest of the world. “Vaccine nationalism … is epidemiologically self-defeating and clinically counterproductive,” Tedros said.

“The new virus strains are a reminder that the pandemic is not over until it is over everywhere,” the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said in a recent report.

“Even within countries, the burden of the crisis has fallen unevenly across groups and has increased inequality,” the IMF said. “Workers with less education, youth, women and those informally employed have suffered disproportionate income losses. Close to 90 million individuals are expected to enter extreme poverty over 2020–21, reversing the trends of the past two decades.”

South African development economist Sharda Naidoo told News Decoder: “This could increase global poverty by about 10%, which could, in turn, impact rich countries’ economies through such areas as global trade, export markets, supply chains and access to labor and skills.”

A study by the International Chamber of Commerce shows that fully vaccinating the population of rich countries while neglecting poor ones could cost rich countries as much as $4.5 trillion in lost economic activity.

Global collaboration is key.

To combat this, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is calling on rich countries to show some “enlightened self-interest and common sense” and to reduce the risk of global re-infection by making sure that “everyone who is a frontline health worker is vaccinated everywhere rather than the whole population of a rich country.”

He and others recommend much more urgent and widespread global collaboration on vaccine funding, information, licensing, contracting, production and logistics, particularly among the more than 170 countries that are part of the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) risk-sharing facility.

The IMF recommends that both rich and poorer nations:

1. Provide targeted economic lifelines to households and firms where the virus is surging, to help maintain livelihoods and prevent bankruptcies of otherwise viable firms, enabling a faster rebound once constraints are lifted.

2. Free up resources for investment in longer-term projects in education, skills development, digitalization and green jobs.

David McNair, Executive Director for Global Policy at One.org, was blunt: “People all over the world and all international agencies have to recognize this is a moment to stand together. If we don’t, we all fail together!”

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why should rich countries help poorer ones to distribute and administer vaccines?
  2. What do you consider to be the main risks to the world as a whole if this does not happen?
  3. Is there anything that you and your school/community could do to ensure greater global vaccine equity?
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Jeremy Solomons is an independent global leadership consultant and peace activist, based in Kigali, Rwanda, where he writes two regular columns on "Leading Rwanda" and “A Letter from Kigali” for the New Times newspaper. In the past, he was a Reuters reporter and correspondent in Hong Kong, New York and Frankfurt. Born and educated in the United Kingdom and naturalized in the United States, Rwanda is the ninth country he has lived in.

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Economy Poor nations lag in COVID vaccination, posing global peril