Protecting the world from a vaccine apartheid


With the availability of COVID-19 vaccines increasing, infection rates are stabilizing in some countries and reducing in others. Yet there is no hope in sight for the lifting of international travel bans.

The countries most affected by these bans are the developing ones that used innovative methods to stem the spread of the virus in the absence of vaccines. They have low immunization rates and so do they have low infection rates. But still, they are facing travel bans from countries that have been more fortunate in cracking the code of the vaccine along with the ability of mass manufacture and mass distribution.

This is giving rise to what Tedros Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organization (WHO), has termed “vaccine apartheid” – a virtual segregation between the countries of the global north and the global south.

Economies of the developing world suffered the main brunt of the pandemic since their public health systems, economic infrastructure and trade capacities were not on par with those of the developed world. They had to adopt low-cost and improvised means to keep infection rates under check.

Many did succeed. But with the vaccine apartheid taking shape, governments from developing countries are facing travel bans that they are finding unreasonable. Stretched to limits, their economies presently need an immediate boost in the form of removal of travel restrictions so that activity across borders can resume and add the much-needed fuel to their economic engines.

The travel bubbles introduced during the early period of the pandemic were based on low infection rates. Now, however, travel restrictions are coming up after determining immunization rates of various countries. There are countries that have low immunization rates but also have low infection rates. Restricting travelers from such countries is akin to punishing the winners.

For underdeveloped countries, travel is their lifeline. With less domestic economic activity, many of them depend on cross-border trade, export of labor and physical proximity between producers and consumers for the welfare of their people. This is precisely why they have been trying to impose strict protocols for pushing infection rates to the minimum. When richer nations put them on travel ban lists despite their successes, it only adds to the frustration.

For developed countries, on the other hand, a steady flow of skilled immigrants is necessary to cater to aging workforces and maintain public services. No, not all work can be done from home. By banning travel from countries with low-immunization-low-infection rates, the developed world is pushing itself to yet another economic crisis.

Then there are instances where countries in one geographic proximity with starkly different infection rates have been subjected to the same travel restrictions. For instance, Pakistan’s infections have been averaging around 1,000 daily new cases for a population of 216 million. Its eastern neighbor India has been counting around 50,000 new daily cases for a population of 1.3 billion – a ratio eight times higher.

Both Pakistan and India have been placed on travel ban lists by various countries in an insensitive disregard to Pakistan’s impressive containment strategy that has even been acknowledged by Mr Ghebreyesus of the WHO. Pakistan is also one of the countries domestically producing COVID-19 vaccines. PakVac has been licensed from China’s CanSinoBio and entered mass production this June.

The vaccine apartheid is also being fueled by selective acceptance of WHO-approved vaccines for international travel. The WHO is a multilateral body with the best brains from around the world. Disregarding its advisory is disregarding the global governance system that is the backbone of bringing order amid global anarchy.

The world has suffered enough in the last 4 years of an American presidency bent upon taking down international bodies. Now it must move forward, resume discussion on issues of global importance and stop the erosion of institutions like the WHO.

While Donald Trump’s strategy was to pressure his country’s partners into reversing export bans on certain drugs to the US, Joe Biden’s America-First vaccine strategy also proved a disappointment to those expecting Biden to end his predecessor’s isolationist policies. Biden’s decision to share only the surplus vaccines with the world was in contrast, to cite an example, with that of China where vaccine exports to developing nations started far before a significant percentage of the Chinese population was vaccinated.

Countries of the global south have banded together in the past to address the bias they face for no fault of theirs. They have formed cooperative bodies to jointly combat some unjust practices of their past colonial masters and succeeded in fixing many wrongs.

Vaccine apartheid, gradually taking hold, is another such wrong that the affected countries need to tackle together. Discussion must be generated in capitals to come up with collaborative strategies, use international platforms to raise a concerted voice and convince richer nations in bilateral and multilateral dealings that the world cannot defeat COVID-19 until all vaccines approved by the WHO are accepted by all countries.

Another solution to end the vaccine apartheid is to force Big Pharma to forego intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. It would enable producers around the world to distribute vaccines in greater quantities. Low and middle-income countries would then not only be self-sufficient in mass vaccinations but would also mitigate the shortages in developed nations.

If the vaccine apartheid is not addressed immediately, the pandemic’s waves will keep coming and, rich nations or poor, all will keep counting their dead. To stay ahead of the infection curves, they will subsequently continue to restrict travel with neither of the two poles of the world beating the virus. This unending cycle can be avoided. All it takes is a prudent approach to the travel bans and vaccine distribution.

Hayat Bangash
Hayat Bangash
Hayat Bangash is an air force veteran and a commentator on international affairs. He tweets at @HayatKBangash


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