According to the United Nations specialized agency responsible for international public health, World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 80% of the world’s Covid-19 vaccines have been consumed by the rich, Group of Twenty (G20) countries.
Meanwhile, the low-income countries, particularly the African states, have only received around 0.6% of these vaccines so far, where millions of vulnerable populations and health workers are yet to receive a single dose.
Such conditions can accelerate the spread of Covid-19, eventually leading to creating further mutations of the virus. Omicron serves as the latest example in this regard.
First identified in Botswana and South Africa last month, the Covid-19 variant B.1.1.529 (Omicron) has prompted deep concern among researchers, scientists, and public health officials, given its enormously high number of mutations.
On November 26, 2021, WHO designated Omicron as a ‘variant of concern,’ besides warning about the high global risks it possesses. The variant has spread across every continent except Antarctica as more than half of countries in the world have reported Omicron cases to date.
Given the threat of climate change and existent global politics surrounding vaccine distribution, this is regarded as yet another ‘difficult’ wave of the pandemic. It highlights one of the biggest failures of humanity since there have been no substantial global efforts made to resolve the issue at hand.
The point to ponder is that the trend of hoarding vaccines by the rich countries has created ideal conditions for the emergence of Covid variants, including Omicron.
For instance, the current situation has exposed the long-existing disparities between the Global North and Global South where the former has all the resources available to fight Covid-19 while the latter struggles with issues such as continuous population growth and poor health conditions (primarily lack vaccines) which makes it easier for the virus to spread.
Consequently, as reported by WHO, the more opportunities a virus gets to spread, the more chances it has to mutate and form dangerous variants like Omicron.
Here, it is important to note that countries that generally account for the Global North tend to be wealthier, more democratic, less unequal, and technologically advanced when compared to the Global South, which constitutes less-developed states having fragile democracies and a frequent history of being ‘colonized’ by the Northern states.
Given this, the gap between the two sides kept widening over the years due to the continuous exploitation of the Global South by the North. In economic terms, for instance, states in the Global North own more than 90% of the manufacturing industries and the income earned anywhere in the world despite having a much lesser population than the Global South.
Meanwhile, the North systemically keeps the latter dependent through assistance policies, as witnessed in the pandemic era. For example, before Covid-19, many African countries were highly indebted to the Western donors which have now drastically increased to tackle the cost of Covid-19 policy responses, hence, keeping those countries dependent on the Global North.
The prevalent vaccine inequity has left the Global South, mainly the African states, at the mercy of Covid-19. According to the ‘Our World in Data project,’ which globally collects official numbers from governments, only 8.5% of people in less-developed nations have received Covid-19 dose (s) where the entire African region has only completed around 9% of the full vaccination regimen.
On the contrary, more than 60% of the American and European population has been fully immunized to date which underscores the global inequalities in vaccine distribution. Hence, the well-supplied countries need to go beyond the vague promises and readily deliver the doses they committed to share with the less-developed nations.
Various factors have contributed to the Global South’s limited ability to access vaccines, thus, increasing the risk for further variants to emerge.
The factors include export restrictions, dose hoarding by high-income countries, blocked proposals to voluntarily share the intellectual property rights, and the donations of vaccines having shorter shelf lives. Nigeria, for instance, has recently had to destroy more than 1 million doses of expired AstraZeneca vaccines.
This is an outcome of the early vaccine hoarding by rich countries like the US who kept procuring the doses amid their developmental stage, even exceeding the domestic demand, and offered them up for donation once they were about to expire.
In addition, the Global North continues to outcompete the Global South by widely giving booster shots and vaccinating its children before many of the African countries have even received their first doses.
This is quite alarming to note because Covid-19 variants like Delta and Omicron happen to rise due to low vaccination rates and a high burden of infection, which is undeniably the case with many states in the Global South.
Meanwhile, the growing economic and social barriers in Africa caused by vaccine inequity will have global repercussions as well. For instance, as many people remain unvaccinated worldwide, the more it would lead to the emergence of new perilous mutants.
It is quite evident from the case of the Delta variant which emanated from India due to community transmission within an unvaccinated population, and eventually paved the way towards a devastating wave of coronavirus.
It is hereby argued that the entire sequence is destined to repeat itself unless the resourceful nations ‘fairly’ share Covid-19 vaccines with the low-income states. Similarly, it is direly required by the West to invest in regional vaccine production capacity and assist relevant companies to produce more doses.
Despite the emergence of new tools to tackle Covid-19, injustices around vaccine distribution will only extend the pandemic due to which it has now become crucial to move towards ‘universal health coverage,’ which advocates for equal public health and safety, particularly benefiting the individuals with financial issues.
To conclude, the trend of hoarding vaccines unnecessarily by the wealthy nations has created ideal conditions for the emergence of Covid-19 variants, such as Omicron, which keeps prolonging the pandemic.
Therefore, to completely eradicate the virus, it is important to resolve the issue of vaccine inequity, particularly by ensuring safe health conditions for the Global South.
*The writer has graduated in International Relations from Bahria University Islamabad and has remained a Research Fellow at The Diplomatic Insight and Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies
*The opinion in this article is a writer’s own and does not necessarily represent those of the institutions.