As COVID Vaccine Disparity Widens, Fears Mount Over Economic Impact

Vaccines are allowing richer nations to reopen for trade and tourism. But despite G-7 pledges to help developing nations inoculate by the end of 2022, most public health experts and World Health Organization officers predict it will be well into 2023 and likely beyond before they are sufficiently vaccinated.

Only 1.5% of Africans have been vaccinated — their hospitals are overwhelmed, and oxygen supplies are low, with rising cases of COVID-19, the potentially deadly illness that can be triggered by the coronavirus.

COVID-19 cases have been spiking relentlessly for weeks throughout the continent and vaccines are scarce. There has been a slight decrease this week, largely thanks to a drop in cases in South Africa, but “Africa’s third wave is absolutely not over. This small step forward offers hope and inspiration but must not mask the big picture for Africa,” Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director, said last week at a press conference.

“Many countries are still at peak risk, and Africa's third wave surged up faster and higher than ever before,” she said, adding that 21 African countries have seen cases rise by over 20% in consecutive weeks.

WHO officials fear that 47 of Africa’s 54 countries will miss a September target of vaccinating 10% of their populations, a goal set earlier this year by the World Health Assembly, the world’s highest health policy-setting body. Africa accounts for less than 1% of the more than 4 billion vaccine doses administered globally.

Many Latin American countries also are lagging. The region, along with the Caribbean, has suffered 1.25 million COVID-19-related deaths and is struggling to secure the vaccines needed by those countries. While Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have inoculated about 50% of their populations, most of the others have managed to vaccinate only about 30% — with Honduras, Guatemala and Venezuela trailing at under 10%.

The U.S. sent millions of doses of vaccine to Latin America earlier this month as part of President Joe Biden's commitment to end the pandemic across the globe. One million doses of Johnson & Johnson's vaccine were shipped to Bolivia, a million doses of Pfizer to Paraguay on Friday, and 1.5 million doses of Moderna to Guatemala, according to the White House.

Overall, across the globe, just 1.1% of people in low-income countries have received at least one vaccine dose. In June, the G-7 countries pledged to share 1 billion vaccine doses, half of which would come from the U.S.

That raises a question: How will the vaccinated and unvaccinated worlds live together as supplies of shots and inoculation programs in developing and poorer nations lag behind a vaccine curtain?

Growing frustration amid over limited vaccine supplies, along with travel restrictions for the unvaccinated exacerbating development inequities is widening a global divide between haves and have-nots, some experts warn. They point to blocking unvaccinated people from travel risks, reducing their access to goods and clinching business deals, and even to learning as African and Latin American students face increased visa challenges to attend Western universities.

John Nkengasong, director at Africa’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emphasized at a recent press briefing, “Any imposition of a vaccination passport will create huge inequities and will further exacerbate them.”

"We are already in a situation where we don’t have vaccines, and it will be extremely unfortunate that countries impose a travel requirement of immunization certificates whereas the rest of the world has not had the chance to have access to vaccines,” he said.

Development experts fear that restrictions on travel and vaccine passports will compound the economic harm of the pandemic on low- and middle-income countries, and will keep students, scientists, and many others from participating in the globalized world.

In a sign of how the vaccinated world and the unvaccinated interact in the coming years, Kenya has been squabbling with Britain, its former colonial ruler, over a ban it has maintained on most travelers coming from the East African country.

Kenya retaliated earlier this year by making it mandatory for all passengers originating from or transiting through Britain airports — vaccinated or otherwise — to undergo two weeks of quarantine at a government facility at their own cost. The Kenyan government charged in a statement that Britain “seems to be motivated by a discriminatory policy against certain countries and peoples.”

British officials, like their counterparts in other Western countries, say strict travel restrictions are needed to protect their own citizens from virus variants and their first duty must be to their own populations.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) raised the prospect Tuesday that the developed world will get blowback from the economic and political turmoil the developing world increasingly will suffer from the pandemic. In its outlook titled Fault Lines Widen in the Global Economy, it sounded the alarm of a global economic recovery where the “poor get poorer and social unrest and geopolitical tensions grow.”

The IMF cited vaccine inequality as a chief driver in a widening gulf between recoveries in developed and less developed economies. It noted that close to 40% of people in advanced economies have been fully vaccinated compared with slightly more than 10% in emerging market economies, and an insignificant percentage in low-income countries.

The IMF, the WHO, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization, have collectively urged a goal of vaccinating at least 40% of all people in every country by the end of 2021 and 60% by the middle of 2022. The IMF said this week that as the pandemic continues to rage, the risks mount of the emergence of highly infectious virus variants, which in turn could derail the global economic recovery.

“Concerted policy actions can make the difference between a future where all economies experience durable recoveries or one where divergences intensify, the poor get poorer and social unrest and geopolitical tensions grow,” said the IMF’s chief economist, Gita Gopinath, in a press statement.

Source: Voice of America