The Politics of Vaccinations

Image Credit: Flickr, DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II

Aoife Rooney reflects on the global vaccination effort.

The first COVID-19 vaccine was administered in early December 2020. A conversation surrounding vaccine distribution quickly ensued after the brief sigh of relief when it was reported that vaccine developments had achieved approval. Large-scale vaccination of vulnerable groups was rolled out in many countries including the United States, China, and the United Kingdom. Months later, 121 countries have implemented vaccine rollout. While there is much conversation about the speed of vaccination in Western countries, there are full continents that are only recently getting access to vaccines.

While over 70 countries have yet to receive any vaccinations, those in low-income countries are particularly struggling. In Africa, countries are facing challenges in implementing the effective rollout of a vaccine to their citizens. The large populations of many of these countries, as well as the lack of necessary infrastructure and support from wealthier countries, means that many will be some of the last to see large-scale immunisation. As of March 12th, for every 100 people on the continent of Africa, only 0.48 of them have had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. This is in stark comparison to the United States, where the same measure currently sits at 31.98 vaccinated for every 100 people.

Experts have been well aware that an event such as a pandemic would shed a harsh light on the political and economic inequalities of countries with higher rates of poverty. To address this problem, the World Health Organisation (WHO) developed the COVAX initiative. It is a vaccine-accessibility scheme, aimed at ensuring the equal distribution of Covid vaccines is accessible in a timely manner to all people, not just those fortunate enough to live in countries whose governments can afford to bid for vaccines. 

The main reason there is an issue with lower-income countries gaining access to vaccines is that the competition for vaccinations among governments was fuelled by their ability to wage more funding to secure as many doses as possible. This was a roadblock that countries, such as Sudan and Venezuela among many others, could not possibly get around. The COVAX pillar is coordinated by Gavi (The Vaccine Alliance), the WHO and Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and aims to provide equitable access to vaccine candidates, but also to support the research and manufacturing of vaccines. As stated by Gavi, “the initial aim is to have 2 billion doses available by the end of 2021.” COVAX is already responsible for the administration of much of the vaccinations across countries in the Global South. Despite this, the first COVAX vaccines in Africa were only beginning to be administered in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire on March 1st. While other countries have been steadily administering vaccines since December, this is still a positive development. Without the COVAX initiative, many of the countries that have started to see immobilisation of vaccines would still be unable to access this healthcare due to lack of funding. US President Joe Biden is to announce a contribution of $4 billion to COVAX, according to the White House.

French President Emmanuel Macron has also addressed the issue of the widening equity gap between wealthy and poor countries in his call to the US and Europe to “urgently send up to 5% of their coronavirus vaccines to developing nations”. It has been reported that in the frenzy of countries trying to purchase the necessary amounts of vaccinations, some are hoarding the availabilities. Both Canada and the UK have ordered more vaccines than necessary to immunise their respective populations. 

While the continent of Africa is where the overall lack of access to vaccines is most prevalent, there is also severe inequity in South American countries. To look at the continent as a whole, it has only vaccinated 4.98 people out of every 100. It has a population of 430.4 million. Similarly, the European Union has a population of 444.9 million, yet has vaccinated 10.98 people for every 100. Paraguay is one country, in particular, that is suffering the cost of lack of access to vaccines and healthcare infrastructure with only 7,579 people immunised, despite a population of over 7 million. 

One of the other factors that contribute to this inequity is access to specific vaccines. For example, the ability to administer the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is entirely contingent on the country having access to the freezers needed to maintain them and the infrastructure to keep the freezers going. While it is reported that the vaccine can now be stored at a higher temperature, it is only one of the many challenges that countries that are not in a position to ensure they can purchase vaccines are up against.  

The COVAX initiative is seemingly the only chance poorer countries have of attempting to kickstart immunisation. The project is heavily reliant on the contribution of resources by wealthier countries. In order to effectively vaccinate the populations of lower-income countries, and in doing so address the global vaccination attempt, support must be given by wealthier Western countries to close the equity gap that has vastly widened in the past year.