Niamh is a lecturer with the Maynooth University Department of International Development. Niamh is an advocate for sustainable development and emphasises the importance of sustainability through her work. She has a keen interest in the conflicts and contradictions between development theory and practice, particularly those that she explores and experiences through the critical perspectives of development practitioners who she encounters locally and globally.
Read more at https://www.maynoothuniversity.ie/international-development/our-people/niamh-rooney
This blog originally featured on 'Stories of Change: from Knowledge to Action'. The official blog of the Maynooth University Department of International Development - https://maynoothinternationaldevelopment.home.blog/
What will future generations read of solidarity in the time of COVID in the history books? Will the rich and powerful countries of the west journey confidently along the insular and individualistic road without shame or guilt? Will they navigate the back roads in an attempt to disguise their shameful actions with empty calls for and token acts of solidarity? Will the citizens of the west act as a global community and push for real solidarity, or retreat into the perceived shelter of individualism? Will pharmaceutical companies continue to place profit before people or will they come together to act justly and morally?
We are a global community of shared humanity. People around the world face poverty, inequality and injustice, in differing degrees and with different consequences. Recent years have seen both deepening divisions and growing solidarity on many issues, such as migration and racial inequality, within and across borders. Then came a global pandemic, a public health emergency of international concern, which threatens the entire global community indiscriminately. Over the past year, COVID-19 has reminded us that borders are a manufactured construct, which can be breached with ease, reinforcing the connectedness of our global community. Yet instead of global collaboration and collective action to win the war on COVID, we have seen a rise in strategy and policy that promotes individualism among states and regions, rather than a strategy of global solidarity and action to protect all global citizens equally.
There is no doubt that the task of tackling the virus is one of complexity, challenge, and presents difficult choices for those in power. It is a balancing act, juggling national responsibilities with international, national with international power relations, and so on. There are many roads to the same destination, a destination where all global citizens are safe and protected from COVID-19. Choosing another destination is not only unjust but not a valid option, for one to be safe we all need to be safe. There are roads of global solidarity, collaboration, and collective action, roads of individualism and global inaction, and back roads that promise a quieter route to the destination but with potholes and deep ditches of injustice, inequality and shame, which cause damage en route and leave lasting scars. Personally, I am very aware of my privilege as a citizen of a state where I have access to personal protection measures, where I have access to healthcare albeit in a system under strain but coping due to the heroic efforts of frontline staff, where I have the hope of a vaccine and an end in sight. I am also acutely aware that many others in my global community don’t share my privilege.
Many leaders have already chosen their route but that route is not fixed, a different route and journey is possible. Many governments have taken the route of closing their borders to protect their citizens, their health service and their economies. Some have done so with notable success like New Zealand, some to a lesser extent, and others shamefully taking advantage of the pandemic to advance anti-migrant agendas under the guise of protecting its citizens. We have borne witness to situations of extreme inequality, where measures that can protect lives such as hand-washing and social distancing are not an option for many global citizens. We have seen inequalities in those most affected by the virus, such as with Black and Latin American communities in the US where mortality rates far exceed that of White communities. We are at a global moral crossroad, where international solidarity has been forgotten, replaced by discord and nationalism, a stockpiling of weapons of a different kind in this war on COVID-19, weapons with the power to save lives rather than cause suffering or loss of life. While we have seen and participated in acts of solidarity, on issues of migration and racial inequality more broadly, and more specifically in relation to COVID-19 with community initiatives, and acts of solidarity in support of the vulnerable in society, we now need to direct the road chosen. Some have already started on a moral road, moving together towards vaccine equality.
Image credit: Dr Eilish Dillon
Health inequality is nothing new, inequality in access to medicines neither but this is different. This is a global pandemic, affecting every corner of the globe, and which will continue to be a global crisis unless we act in unity to defeat the virus rather than hoarding and stockpiling far more vaccinations than we need in the West. In unity, a unified approach. We need to vaccinate 60% of the population to attain herd immunity, this means 60% of the global population, otherwise it becomes an even longer drawn out battle, one that may never be won.
New research from Oxfam (2021:8) suggests that, “the increase in wealth of the ten richest billionaires since the crisis began is more than enough to prevent anyone on earth from falling into poverty because of the virus and to pay for a COVID-19 vaccine for all”. Global nations have been clamouring to secure the vaccine, understandably, however, what is not understandable, or acceptable, is securing quantities of the vaccine that far exceeds national need. Canada for example has reportedly secured enough vaccines to vaccinate its population more than five times, while other nations have agreed contracts for up to three times their actual need. The debacle around the Oxford-AstraZeneca has resulted in the formulation of EU mechanisms to control the exportation of vaccines from the EU, a measure which seeks to favour the protection of EU citizens over others, and which reflects an unequal balance of power.
Image credit: Satoshi Kambayashi. The Economist (2020).
All this while case numbers on the African continent are rising. John Nkengasong, director of Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has been raising the alarm on rising infection rates on the continent, the inequality in vaccine distribution and expected failings of the COVAX facility. While there are a reported 2.3 million infections on the African continent, predictions are that the majority of African states will barely have enough vaccines to vaccinate 10% of their population. A far cry from the 60% coverage required to achieve herd immunity, and a prediction which justifies labelling of rich nations actions as immoral and shameful.
COVAX, the vaccination element of a global collaboration working towards defeating the virus, focuses on fair and equitable access to tests, treatments and vaccines. However, COVAX can only guarantee enough doses to vaccinate 20% of countries’ populations and even if the rich countries secured only the quantity of vaccines that they need, we will still fall short of supply to meet demand. This has led to calls for pharmaceutical companies to share their intellectual property and technology openly via WHO mechanisms to allow for true global collaboration on manufacture and distribution of a vaccine that is available and accessible for all. In recent weeks, South Africa and India made proposals to the World Trade Organisation Council “to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments until everyone is protected”, reflecting other global alliances calling for a people’s vaccine. With recent reports of disparity in the price of vaccines charged to EU countries and South Africa, fears of a price war seem well founded and strengthens the argument for patent free vaccine development. As highlighted by the Peoples Vaccine Alliance, much of the funding for research and development in the pharmaceutical industry is funded by taxpayers and would not be possible without the people of the globe who so desperately need an end to this pandemic. As we hear repeatedly in news media, in the COVID race, nobody wins unless everybody wins.
Hope is an ambition that has been voiced in every narrative we hear, and rightly so, as without hope, what would keep us going in such bleak times. So let’s share that hope, fairly, equally, globally… without it, all we are left with is a long, miserable journey along an immoral and shameful road.