The data on covid-19 vaccine inequality is overwhelming.
Most Western countries have vaccination rates well above 70%. Low- and middle-income countries, which have been forced to rely on donations from rich countries to vaccinate their populations, are lagging behind. Poor countries in particular barely reach 12% vaccination rates, and in African countries such as Burundi or the Democratic Republic of Congo, less than 1% of the population has received a vaccine against covid-19.
Even for those who live in highly vaccinated communities, this should be of concern, if not for moral reasons, at least for selfish ones. Low vaccination rates have caused the delta and omicron variants to emerge, and the risk is that more variants will result from similar conditions and then spread across the world.
But vaccine development and distribution, patent waivers, global trade and international cooperation are too much beyond the reach of individuals for an ordinary citizen to do much about it. Where are they? Vaccine equity advocates don’t believe so, and while they emphasize the role of governments in promoting better distribution of vaccines – and medicines, for this health emergency and future ones – they have Also some suggestions for what the rest of us can do.
One of the root causes of vaccine inequality is the reluctance of pharmaceutical companies to share their covid-19 vaccine patents. International pressure for patent waivers has been blocked by wealthy governments, which tend to protect the interests of pharmaceutical companies. “Governments have begun to believe that their interests and the interests of the pharmaceutical companies that inhabit their cities are the same as their national interests“, says Ben Phillips, anti-inequality activist and author of How to Fight Inequality.
Citizens can ensure that their representatives understand that they are not blindly supporting big pharma interests in a global emergency. This is especially true when pharmaceutical intellectual property protection ends up prolonging the pandemic, harming the interests of countless other industries.
What is decided in international forums is discussed in national frameworks, and citizens can reach out to their representatives to let them know they support patent waivers and measures to support vaccine equity. “The movement we’ve seen in the northern hemisphere — students, doctors, NGOs — is really, really big,” says Phillips. “I think public pressure on the government is essential.”
Go tell the pharmacy
Citizens of wealthy countries are the biggest market for pharmaceutical companies, and covid-19 vaccines have helped big pharma improve their reputations. Over the years, and especially after its involvement in the opioid crisis, the pharmaceutical industry has ranked among the lowest in terms of consumer confidence; in the United States it was the most hated industry and trusted even less than the government. The speed at which pharmaceutical companies have developed vaccines and treatments for covid-19 has dramatically improved their position, but their refusal to cooperate on vaccine fairness could undo those gains, if consumers called it. It’s 2022 – consumer activism can accomplish a lot.
There are two ways to donate to vaccine equity programs. One is to send money to buy vaccines. This is a short-term intervention, and although it has less impact on the whole system, it can make a big difference in expanding the vaccinated population. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Go Give One program allows people to buy a vaccine for countries in need for as little as $5.
The other channel for giving is through organizations and programs that work to expand access to vaccines more systemically, both by campaigning for patent release and investing in local preparedness, so may the next pandemic take the world less by surprise. Among these are:
Covid isolation is a good excuse to engage in some online activism. Additionally, given the global nature of the issue, Internet campaigns have the potential to reach a wider audience. Several that you can join and share from the comfort of your home include: