Even as the international media focuses on the ‘vaccine gap’ between vaccinated and unvaccinated world leaders turning the General Assembly into a super-spreader event, the real issue is the global vaccine gap. The emphasis should have been not on vaccine deniers, like Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro, but on a summit of world leaders happening at the right place at the right time to discuss global vaccine inequity.
The global gap between the jabbed and jab-nots is not just unjust, but there is increased risk of the emergence of deadlier variants like Delta since such a large section of the world’s population is not yet vaccinated. It also means that more people in poorer countries are at risk of losing their livelihoods as the pandemic surges there.
The attempt to promote the COVAX facility to distribute vaccines to the developing world was a noble gesture, but it ended up being largely just that: a gesture. Rich countries circled their wagons, fighting tooth and nail among themselves to stockpile several times more vaccines than was needed by their populations. Team Europe tried to pick up the slack, but this just ended up putting brakes on individual members trying to pass on surplus doses to countries most in need.
We now know that vaccines are the most effective tool we have to defeat this scourge. But like all disasters, Covid-19 has also exposed structural inequality in the world. So far, 73% of the 5.7 million vaccine doses administered so far have been in just 10 of the better off countries.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) wants to vaccinate at least 40% of the population of every country by the end of this year, and will need the pledges made at the UN this week to reach 70% by next year. It has called on richer countries to postpone third dose boosters to their populations and ship those doses to people around the world who are not yet vaccinated. But going by the vaccine nationalism we have seen so far, that is unlikely to happen.
Nearer home, Nepal was one of the first countries in the region to start its vaccination drive in March – thanks to us being next door to India which gifted 1 million doses right away and had just started supplying more Astra Zeneca Covishield vaccines indirectly via COVAX when the Delta struck with brutal force. Because of our open border, the strain swept through Nepal as well, but by then India had stopped the export of Covishield.
On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden hosts a virtual summit to discuss concrete steps the world can take collectively to combat the contagion. He is calling for 1 billion more vaccines to be shipped out so that 70% of the world population can be inoculated by 2022, this in addition to the 2 billion already pledged.