Vaccines have been cited as a great way to get out of the worst spread of newfound disease. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused enormous loss of life. However, efforts to get the global population fully vaccinated are taking place, albeit in an unfair manner. The United States has surpassed 200 million doses administered this April and after long awaited rollouts, Canada and European Union member countries are steadily picking up their efforts to administer doses to their populations.
While countries that make up the wealthy Global North try to administer as many vaccines as possible, the same cannot be said for a large part of the world. Countries in the Global South have struggled to gain access to vaccines, while having to endure the worst circumstances inflicted by the pandemic, speaking to the much discussed concept of vaccine apartheid. There are initiatives dedicated to share vaccines with the Global South, however, it’s faced many setbacks and global health officials point to vaccine hoarding as a reason for it.
On May 5, U.S. president Joe Biden supported lifting COVID-19 vaccine patents to greatly expand access to vaccines globally in a move unprecedented in prior global health crises. Such a move – if implemented – would greatly aid many countries in improving their circumstances going forward by being able to make vaccines closer to home.
It’s unclear when this action will be actualized yet countries on both sides of vaccine apartheid highlight the polarized realities it has caused. Let’s take a closer look at how vaccine apartheid creates different circumstances in combatting the COVID-19 pandemic in the Global North and South.
Prior to the inauguration of now-President Joe Biden, the United States led the world with exponential growth of new COVID-19 cases. Biden sought to achieve an ambitious plan of getting the country vaccinated, with one million shots administered daily, amounting to 100 million shots in his first 100 days. With domestic vaccine production and more coordinated efforts to distribute them, the U.S. hit the 100 million dose goal on March 19 and doubled that goal, reaching 200 million administered vaccines on April 21. As any adult – 18 years or older regardless of immigration status – has been able to receive a vaccine nationwide since April 15, this means that reopening to levels near the ones before the pandemic are happening sooner and faster.
The usage of the Defense Production Act, allowing executive action aimed at increasing domestic vaccine production, has helped to increase the supply of vaccines as many major vaccine companies are also located in the United States. However, the ability to produce vaccines domestically is a privilege that much of the world does not have, and without a wealth of vaccines to draw from, it makes the possibility of getting out of the pandemic more difficult.
The pandemic in Lebanon has been mired in other crises the country has faced over the past couple of years. An economic crisis, a political crisis, and resulting protests prefaced the pandemic along with an explosion at a port in Beirut on Aug. 4, 2020, which led to increased COVID-19 infections following the tragic incident.
The first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine was administered in Lebanon on Feb. 14, with their first vaccine shipment aided by the World Bank. This is a big marker of progress. However, with Lebanon having deviated from its proposed vaccination schedule, the World Bank has threatened to take away their funding. Prior to this, the country’s parliament faced delays in approving the import of vaccines when the country was facing a massive spike in COVID-19 cases.
With Lebanon’s vaccines being funded by a monetary unit of the United Nations, the implications of such conditions exacerbates the existing financial issues, while also worsening the existing health threats COVID-19 poses. On top of pre-existing issues, having to import them also can cause delays in their arrival when export controls are put in place, such as the European Union did in March this year.
While the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in Lebanon face delays, refugees in Lebanon also face a lack of access to the vaccination program, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). With over one third of the country’s population being refugees – mostly from Palestine and Syria – HRW reported they experience significantly higher rates of COVID-19 infections. United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency (UNWRA) works with health authorities in Lebanon to provide health services to refugees and Commissioner-General of the UNRWA for Palestinian Refugees and Comissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini urged countries to include refugees in vaccine rollouts. Otherwise, a lack of access to protection from the virus that causes COVID-19 is just another added barrier to the realities of displacement from one’s homeland.
Slowly, yet surely, Lebanon is picking up on their rate of vaccinations, and joining the ranks of countries rushing to vaccinate as many people as possible. At the same time, the hurdles faced to be able to join that race creates an unfair field to best immunize Lebanon’s and – at large – many countries’ people against the virus that causes COVID-19.
A country’s location, political position, and access to resources should not be a determining factor in one’s access to life-saving vaccines. Yet, polarizing these factors allows vaccine apartheid to flourish. To emerge on the other side of the worst of the pandemic, the world must be vaccinated together and efforts must be coordinated to bring a greater flow of COVID-19 vaccines to countries of the Global South.
If no planned action to eradicate vaccine apartheid is implemented, history will continue to repeat itself at the expense of the most vulnerable.