Amidst a faltering COVAX, time for world leaders to step up
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in a May 19, 2021 note uploaded on its website stated that "Pandemic policy is also economic policy as there is no durable end to the economic crisis without an end to the health crisis." The IMF then proposed three targets to that end: (1) vaccinating at least 40 percent of the population in all countries by the end of 2021 and at least 60 percent by the first half of 2022; (2) tracking and insuring against downside risks; and (3) ensuring widespread testing and tracing.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) advised that at least 70 percent of the world population must be vaccinated in order to end the coronavirus pandemic. Even if this requirement cannot be fulfilled in the near future, the IMF's 40 percent vaccination target should cover a minimum of 3 to 4 billion people. According to an article published on The Conversation website on June 9, 2021, Professor Monica de Bolle of the Johns Hopkins University estimated that if 60 percent to 70 percent of 8 billion people need to be vaccinated to achieve herd protection, it would require 10 billion to 12 billion doses of a two-dose vaccine. If the global capacity for Covid-19 vaccine production is 2 billion to 4 billion doses annually, it could be 2023 or even 2024 before enough vaccines can be produced.
However, as well as the availability of vaccines, another major concern is the discrimination in vaccine access as rich countries are stockpiling most of the supplies. According to a report by The New York Times, till date more than 2.54 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide. While this may sound like a hopeful scenario, the devil is in the details. "86 percent of the shots that have gone into arms worldwide have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Only 0.3 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries," the report says. Because of the widespread discrimination in vaccine access, some countries are yet to get a single dose of vaccination.
The WHO, in a June 11 report, said that some 130 core people in the African countries severely lack access to vaccination. Many countries only received a fraction of what they need, with no guarantee for the rest. For instance, South Africa, which purchased vaccines from international market and are producing vaccines as part of a joint-venture arrangement, were able to vaccinate only 0.8 percent of its population. Another large African country, Nigeria could afford to vaccinate only 0.1 percent of its 200-million population.
As of June 11, Israel vaccinated 60 percent of its population, Bahrain 62 percent, Chile 60 percent, the UK 61 percent, and the USA 52 percent. On the other hand, India only vaccinated 14 percent, Indonesia 7 percent, Sri Lanka 9.6 percent, and Bangladesh 3.6 percent. According to a report in February, Bangladesh was in the 17th position in terms of vaccination. Now it dropped to the 117th due to having not received the vaccine as it was supposed to. Region-wise data also shows distinct levels of discrimination. As of June 17, North America administered vaccines for 68 percent of the entire population. Europe has vaccinated 58 percent, South America 34 percent, Asia 31 percent, Oceania 17 percent, and Africa 3.1 percent. Only 0.3 percent of doses have been administered in the low-income countries.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom stated in a Geneva meeting on May 24 that more than 75 percent of the vaccines had been administered in only 10 countries. He termed this as a "scandalous inequality". He urged that at least 10 percent of the world population be vaccinated by September at any cost. Less than a month later, the reality hasn't changed much.
In April 2020, the COVAX initiative started with an aim to facilitate equitable access to vaccines for middle-income and poorer countries. The main two objectives were equitable access to diagnostics and treatment. However, despite initial promise, the arrangement has come to a halt of late.
Now the question is whether the COVAX was a meaningful initiative at all. WHO in a joint statement with its partners has said: "Designed and implemented in the midst of an unprecedented global public health crisis, it has delivered over 70 million doses to 126 countries and economies around the world since February... Over 35 countries received their first Covid-19 vaccine doses thanks to COVAX." In the same statement, it also said that "if the world's leaders rally together, the original COVAX objectives—delivery of 2 billion doses of vaccines worldwide in 2021, and 1.8 billion doses to 92 lower-income economies by early 2022—are still well within reach."
Against this backdrop, the leaders of G-7, a coalition of powerful countries, committed 870 million vaccines for the third-world countries to be delivered by 2022. This is less than half of the original objective of the COVAX initiative. It can be assumed that the G-7 countries have more vaccines in their stocks.
If one considers the entire scenario, one cannot help but worry if the COVAX can at all fulfil its objectives, and if and how the IMF proposal to vaccinate 40 percent of the world population by 2021 and 60 percent by the first half of 2022 for greater economic recovery will be achieved. Ultimately, this is not just an economic issue; more importantly, it is also an existential one for all of us. As it was mentioned by the WHO director-general in May, 75 percent of all vaccines were administered in just 10 countries, but the question remains, can these 10 countries ensure their safety without helping ensure the safety of the people in other parts of the world? If world leaders don't come up with better solutions to cover the stark vaccination gap among different regions (and countries), what hope is there for us to defeat this deadly virus?
Amir Khasru is Chief Executive, Study Group on Regional Affairs, Dhaka.