Comment: Sharing COVID vaccines globally is vital for us all
As I count down the days to my vaccine appointment, I find myself getting excited about the prospect of a sore arm and feeling a bit rough for a day or two. The last six months have felt long, but the knowledge of the vaccine has kept me going. I’ve been buoyed by the news of my grandma receiving her jag back in February, followed by my partner’s parents in April, then more recently my partner, my brothers and some of my friends. My own text message came through last week.
As I wait, I cannot help but feel incredibly lucky to live in a country that was able to get its hands on significant supplies of a range of vaccines so soon. But I’m also worried that once the world’s wealthiest countries have finished with their own vaccination programmes, they’ll consider it job done. Life will return to normal for the Global North, yet the rest of the world’s population is left to deal with COVID-19 on its own, under-resourced and ignored.
I know I’m not alone here. Unicef recently penned an open letter to leaders ahead of the G7 summit in Cornwall calling for them to make “urgent donations [of the vaccine] by August and to set out a roadmap to scale up donations as supplies increase”. Meanwhile, Oxfam’s ‘Free the Vaccine’ campaign is calling for “equitable access to diagnostic tools, treatments, and vaccines for COVID-19” across the globe.
The announcement that G7 countries will donate a billion vaccines, including 100 million from the UK, is welcome. But the fact it has taken us six months to even get a commitment is worrying.
I understand that political leaders want to ensure their own citizens are vaccinated first and it can be a difficult balance to strike. It would be a brave person who redirects supplies elsewhere while a significant proportion of adults are not yet double dosed and many, like me, are still waiting for our first shot.
But that view is short-sighted. As the World Health Organization says, prioritising low-risk people in wealthier nations ahead of broadening global access means COVID will continue to ravage countries unable to afford supplies (though I’ll take a moment here to reflect that low risk tends to exclude the risk of long COVID, which we don’t yet have an understanding of).
And even after this commitment from the G7, I remain sceptical that this will be any more than warm words. We don’t have a great history of helping the world’s poorest people, letting millions live in absolute poverty and allowing entirely preventable diseases, many of which haven’t been seen on these shores in decades, to kill millions each year. The recent row over cuts to international aid shows that many people take to heart the “charity starts at home” mantra.
Yet set aside the fact that sharing and donating vaccines is the morally right thing to do, not doing so will also risk our own recovery. We’ve already seen a number of variants threaten the progress we’ve made in 2021. Thankfully, the virus has not found a way to circumvent the vaccines yet – but if we let it spread, it one day will.
As our politicians are fond of saying, every jag delivered not only protects the individual, but also increases protection across the UK. We must apply that same logic around the world.