A Global Failure: Why the World’s Poorest Countries are Missing Out on the COVID-19 Vaccine


In this article, the term global North is used to mean wealthier states (sometimes called developed states), and global South to describe lower income states that have often been deemed ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘developing’. It should be noted that neither are homogenous geographic distinctions (for example Australia is considered part of the global North), but it is a useful terminology that does not give preference to one group over the other.

There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has created a sense of global community, as invoked by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organisation:

“No one is safe until everyone is safe”.

Yet even though COVID-19 cares little for national borders, the differences between nations have been highlighted in our treatment of this virus. 90% of people in 67 low-income countries stand little chance of getting vaccinated this year according to a report by BMJ. This is in part due to wealthier nations in the global North ordering more of the vaccine than they necessarily need. However, a larger issue is the fact that the companies producing vaccines are not willing to share intellectual property rights. This means that these pharmaceutical companies have a monopoly on vaccine production, making it more expensive and difficult for other companies and countries to produce the vaccine. Countries in the global South may lack the infrastructure to vaccinate their populations, and so the refusal of these companies to share research findings and technologies is an additional stumbling block to mass vaccination.

A double blow for the world’s poorest

The lack of vaccination in lower income countries is a global issue, and it is important to remember that through no fault of their own, the world’s poorest people have been hit hardest by this virus. COVID-19 has aggravated long-standing inequalities, as many have lost their jobs and been unable to cope with the economic recession this virus has created. The UN recently published a study stating that the virus could push millions into extreme poverty, and reverse years of gains that have been made in poverty alleviation.

People living in countries with a large informal economy will not be able to claim money from a government furlough scheme. Additionally, lower income countries can have a weaker social security system and more inaccessible healthcare. There is no doubt that multiple lockdowns and the changing of our daily lives has affected everyone over the past year. Yet if you are from a middle class, wealthy household, you are more likely to be able to access the technology and have the means to make going about your daily life easier. This is why it is unsurprising that children in poorer households are suffering disproportionately from the closure of schools. Not only is there a moral incentive to alleviate the suffering of those in less wealthy countries, but there is also all a strategic one insofar as it will prevent mutations of the virus. If only a small number of people in a country are vaccinated, this will do nothing to stop the spread of transmission, and mutated versions of the virus are more likely to be created.

As Ghebreyesus stated, no one is safe until the world is treated. So why are wealthier countries doing so little to assist others?

Rethinking power in our world

Last Summer, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer led to riots and sparked global outcry, as people showed their alliance with the Black Lives Matter movement. This was part of a wider discourse on institutional racism, and the idea that countries in the global North have not shed the legacies of their colonial pasts. People took to the streets to protest and tore down statues of racist historical figures. This was an important step in fostering a public discourse on colonial legacies and racism. Yet a very insidious form of racism prevails, and that is the inequality we see between countries on the international stage. The COVID-19 pandemic and our subsequent reaction is a perfect example of this in action.

Despite the end of colonialism, it is obvious that the power imbalance between countries persists. The fact that lower income countries are unlikely to be vaccinated this year is reminiscent of the HIV-AIDS epidemic of the 1980’s-1990’s, where poorer countries had little access to expensive antiretroviral drugs. The public discourse around this time blamed these countries for their lack of infrastructure and ability to tackle the public health crisis. In reality, it is the fault of previous colonisers such as the UK that spent decades exploiting countries in the global South and stunting their economies. The mistakes of the past must not be repeated in our tackling of COVID-19. Vaccines in poorer countries should be funded, and patent rights must be set aside, as the profits of pharmaceutical companies mean nothing in comparison to the lives of those in the global South. One such mechanism that has been set up is Covax (COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access), which was set up by the World Health Organisation to create a more equitable vaccine distribution globally.

Yet Canada has faced significant backlash this month, as it is accessing Covax vaccines in the first round of their distribution. Although this is legal for them to do, as they donated millions of dollars to the fund, they are being criticised as first round vaccines were intended for lower income countries that are in desperate need of them. For example, some countries such as Germany have donated to the Covax programme without requesting doses from it, acknowledging that there are others who need it more.

Below is a video of Canada’s Green Party Leader, Annamie Paul, articulating the moral failings of Canada’s accessing the Covax fund: 

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world in so many ways that not all of them are apparent yet. What clearly remains unchanging is the power imbalance between countries, with richer states dictating to everyone else how things should be done, often prioritizing themselves in the process. A more equitable response to COVID-19 is needed, as everyone has the right to be safe and vaccinated. The virus is not limited by borders, so why should our response to it be any different? 

Rose Heffernan

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