Me First or You First? The Global Race for Covid-19 Vaccination

Last month my elderly parents received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief, as my fear for their lives abated. Whatever one’s thoughts on the government’s handling of the pandemic, you must be impressed with the scale and rapidity of the vaccine roll out. Of course, Israel has brilliantly led the way, vaccinating over 50% of those eligible already.

I am cautiously optimistic that as the vaccine programme expands, recovery here in the UK is becoming a real possibility.  But the positives are clearly not being equally apportioned worldwide. Low-income countries, where most of humanity lives, are still either looking to secure vaccine doses or reliant on some of the global vaccine funding schemes led by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Vaccine Map

Graphic by The People's Vaccine depicts the uneven distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

Such an uneven distribution of the vaccine risks worsening an already increasing reality – that our world is becoming even more unequal than it was pre-pandemic. There is no doubt that wealthier countries have been able to buy up early supplies of the vaccine to prioritise their own populations – and one can hardly fault such a decision. But there are also reports of vaccine hoarding, which may end up denying access to less well-off countries.

The WHO’s Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus recently stated that:

The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure – and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries

Data shows that at the beginning of February 2021, 75% of all global doses were in only 10 countries of the world.

The WHO, with support from the British and other governments, has reserved some 1.3billion doses of the vaccine for 72 low- and middle-income countries under the COVAX programme, which was established to ensure equal vaccine access.  But financial support to COVAX remains below what is required and is inevitably also dependent on the availability of vaccine supplies.

In my delightful role as CEO of World Jewish Relief, I spend much of my time talking to our local partner organisations in 18 countries across the world. These organisations deliver services, partly with our support, to a range of vulnerable programme participants. For all of them, the timing of access to a Covid-19 vaccine is still uncertain.

The realities in Ukraine and Mozambique, two countries where we work, demonstrate the sorry state of vaccine distribution. Ukraine has been at the back of Europe’s queue for vaccines and has sought the EU’s help to secure supplies. Until recently there had not even been government approval for vaccinations to start. Meanwhile in Mozambique, as a worrying new strain of the virus emerges, vaccinations are not expected to begin until June or July at the earliest. And the situation across the world is potentially worse for refugees or those displaced, who may fall outside of national government programmes.

In Jewish law, the value of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of human life, comes before almost everything else. And we have come to appreciate the WHO mantra that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”. I sincerely hope, as a humanitarian and as a Jew, that global vaccination coverage is achieved as soon as possible.

But, of course, vaccines alone will not solve the herculean challenge created by the pandemic. It is well documented how this past year has exacerbated global inequalities, destroyed livelihoods and pushed vulnerable healthcare systems to the brink. In the meantime, whilst most of our global partner communities remain unvaccinated, we are redoubling our efforts to support those who have lost everything this year, getting people back into work and meeting urgent humanitarian needs.

Over 30 years ago, at the start of my humanitarian career, I was working in north Sudan, running feeding centres for thousands of internally displaced persons who were horrifically malnourished. I remember feeling guilty about eating lunch during the day while others had so little. My boss at the time explained that if I didn’t look after myself, I wouldn’t be able to give my all in looking after others. I hope the analogy bears true again. Let’s celebrate vaccinating our own family, but be aware that we must use our health, and immense privilege, to assist those who are now in dire need.

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