COVID-19 vaccines donated in 2022 “will be far too late for those who are dying today”: WHO chief

Life-saving COVID-19 vaccines donated in 2022, instead of this year, “will be far too late” for millions of people “who are dying today, or being infected today, or at risk today” in the low- and middle-income countries of the Global South, says WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Photo by Daniel Schludi on Unsplash

BY OBERT MADONDO@Obiemad | JUN. 23, 2021

Life-saving COVID-19 vaccines donated in 2022, instead of this year, “will be far too late” for millions of people “who are dying today, or being infected today, or at risk today” in the low- and middle-income countries of the Global South, which also have BIPOC (Black people, Indigenous people, People of Colour) majorities.

That was the message from Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), as he addressed reporters on Friday, June 18th. The WHO chief’s address also highlighted the other variant of the global COVID-19 pandemic: vaccine apartheid.

Ghebreyesus said:

The global failure to share vaccines equitably is fueling a two-track pandemic that is now taking its toll on some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. Every region has countries that are now facing a steep increase in cases and deaths. Many countries in Latin America have rapidly increasing epidemics, and others have plateaued at a high level.

In Africa, cases have increased by 52% just in the past week, and deaths have increased by 32%. And we expect things to only get worse. Less than 1% of Africa’s population has been vaccinated.

Vaccines donated next year will be far too late for those who are dying today, or being infected today, or at risk today. Our global targets are to vaccinate at least 10% of the population of every country by September, at least 40% by the end of the year, and 70% by the middle of next year.

Ghebreyesus’ words are a stinging rebuttal of the white saviour industrial complex-informed pledge made by the leaders of the world’s largest economies during the recent G7 summit hosted by the United Kingdom on June 11-13, 2021.

British Prime Minister Johnson, U.S. President Joe Biden, Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Italy Prime Minister Mario Draghi and Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga pledged to collectively donate up to 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to developing countries over the next year.

The G7 summit’s final communiqué loudly pledged to “end the pandemic and prepare for the future by driving an intensified international effort, starting immediately, to vaccinate the world by getting as many safe vaccines to as many people as possible as fast as possible”. And:

Our immediate focus is beating COVID-19 and we set a collective goal of ending the pandemic in 2022. The COVID-19 pandemic is not under control anywhere until it is under control everywhere. In an interconnected world global health and health security threats respect no borders. We therefore commit both to strengthen global action now to fight COVID-19, and to take further tangible steps to improve our collective defences against future threats and to bolster global health and health security. This includes strengthening the World Health Organization (WHO) and supporting it in its leading and coordinating role in the global health system…

Recognising that ending the pandemic in 2022 will require vaccinating at least 60 percent of the global population, we will intensify our action to save lives. Our international priority is to accelerate the rollout of safe and effective, accessible and affordable vaccines for the poorest countries, noting the role of extensive immunisation as a global public good…

Recognising the urgent need to speed up delivery of doses, we are committing to share at least 870 million doses directly over the next year. We will make these doses available as soon as possible and aim to deliver at least half by the end of 2021 primarily channelled through COVAX towards those in greatest need.

Boris Johnson called the pledge a “big step towards vaccinating the world”.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand that the G7’s one billion COVID-19 vaccines pledge is a cruel joke that will not propel the world toward the WHO’s ambitious global targets of vaccinating “at least 10% of the population of every country by September, at least 40% by the end of the year, and 70% by the middle of next year.”

You don’t need to be smarter than a fifth grader to understand that the G7’s stated commitment to end the global COVID-19 pandemic in 2022, to vaccinate “at least 60 percent of the global population” by next year, is a gross insult to “billions” of people in the BIPOC-majority Global South who “are being left behind” and now “see vaccines as a mirage or a privilege for the developed world,” according to UN independent human rights experts.

First, the G7’s supposedly generous one billion COVID-19 vaccine figure is “far short of the 5 billion to 6 billion shots needed” urgently to vaccinate the precarious populations of the Global South, according to a Reuters analysis published after the summit.

Second, G7 leaders deliberately “cooked the books” on that supposedly game-changing one billion global COVID-19 vaccines pledge. Reporting for Bloomberg, Alberto Nardelli and Josh Wingrove explained how they pulled it off:

So far, the G-7 countries have promised 613 million truly new doses – including some funded in part by previously announced aid. If doses already announced in recent weeks by G-7 and EU nations are included, the tally grows to roughly 870 million doses, according to the communique. To reach the 1 billion figure, G-7 officials included pledges made starting back in February.

In an opinion published in The Conversation earlier this week, Michael Jennings, Reader in International Development, SOAS, University of London, posited:

Leaving aside that the commitment was actually only to an extra 870 million doses (the 1 billion figure includes commitments made earlier in the year), this will only allow for 500 million people to be vaccinated, half of those in 2021 and the rest next year… By any standard, the G7’s announcement represents a massive failure of ambition and leadership. There is a clear gap between rhetoric and reality.

In his address to the media, Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director General, stated that “less than 1%” of Africa’s current population of 1.37 billion people has so far been vaccinated. One of the WHO’s “global targets” is to vaccinate “at least 40%” of the populations of Africa’s 54 countries, which have overwhelming Black and BIPOC majorities, “by the end of the year, and 70% by the middle of next year.”

Third, burgeoning COVID-19 vaccine apartheid. Jonathan Shaffer, a co-founder of Right to Health Action and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Boston University, recently described COVID-19 vaccine apartheid as “the injustice built into the current and persistent inequalities in vaccine access. The map of current Covid-19 vaccine access overlays neatly onto much older maps of colonial conquest.”

The current global distribution of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines has the raw characteristics of the racist system of apartheid as it was implemented in South Africa. Apartheid deliberately prioritized the survival, fears, hopes, dreams and economic interests of the minority white population. Apartheid deliberately deprived Black Africans, the majority and indigenous to South Africa, of access to land, economic opportunities, decent housing, healthcare, basic human rights, essential freedoms, and basic human dignity.

A “dangerous gap” currently divides the white-majority countries of the West and the BIPOC-majority countries and communities of Africa, South East Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and other parts of the Global South when it comes to the global production and distribution of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines.

As of June 22, 2021, The New York Times‘ COVID-19 “vaccinations tracker” reported:

More than 2.66 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, equal to 35 doses for every 100 people. There is already a stark gap between vaccination programs in different countries, with some yet to report a single dose… There is also a striking divide between continents. Africa has the slowest vaccination rate of any continent, with some countries yet to start mass vaccination campaigns…

Less wealthy countries are relying on a vaccine-sharing arrangement called Covax, which aims to provide two billion doses by the end of the year. 86 percent of shots that have gone into arms worldwide have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries. Only 0.3 percent of doses have been administered in low-income countries.

The New York Times‘ COVID-19 vaccinations tracker uses data from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford in the UK and other reputable global entities. The tracker describes a “vaccinated person” as “someone who has received at least one dose of a vaccine,” and a “fully vaccinated person” as someone who “has received all required doses of a vaccine.”

As of June 22, 2021, the tracker showed that 67% and 19% of Canada’s citizens and residents had been “vaccinated” and “fully vaccinated”, respectively. By comparison, an overwhelming majority of Black African- and BIPOC-majority countries and communities of Africa, South East Asia, Latin America and parts of the Global South, from whose half-guarded economies Canada extracts tens of millions of dollars every year through largely unaccountable extractive businesses, remained in what UN human rights experts recently called a situation where “they see vaccines as a mirage or a privilege for the developed world”.

For example, The New York Times‘ COVID-19 “vaccinations tracker” confirmed that, as of June 22, 2021:

  • South Africa had “vaccinated” only 3.7% and “fully vaccinated” only 0.8% of its population.
  • Ghana had “vaccinated” only 2.8% and “fully vaccinated” only 1.3% of its population.
  • Bangladesh had “vaccinated” only 3.6% and “fully vaccinated” only 2.6% of its population.
  • Guatemala had “vaccinated” only 4% and “fully vaccinated” only 0.9% of its population.
  • Nicaragua had “vaccinated” only 2.6% of its population.
  • Zambia had “vaccinated” only 0.8% and “fully vaccinated” less than 1% of its population.

This is exactly the situation UN human rights experts expected G7 leaders to fully address in their letter, issued on the eve of the summit:

Billions of people in the Global South are being left behind. They see vaccines as a mirage or a privilege for the developed world. This situation will unnecessarily prolong the crisis, drastically increase the death toll and deepen economic distress, possibly sowing the seeds of social unrest.

Arguing that every human being on the planet “has a right to have access to a vaccine for COVID-19 that is safe, effective, timely and based on the application of the best scientific development,” the UN rights experts “called on leaders of the world’s largest economies to make sure people in the Global South get equal access to COVID-19 vaccines and not to allow the profit motive to undermine global health and equity.” They reminded G7 leaders:

Now is the time for international solidarity and cooperation to provide effective assistance to all governments in their vaccination efforts and to save lives. It is not the time for protracted negotiations or for lobbying to erect barriers in order to protect corporate profits.

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently added his voice to the growing global criticism of the injustice of the COVID-19 pandemic variant of vaccine apartheid. According to Brown:

Immunising the west but only a fraction of the developing world is already fueling allegations of ‘vaccine apartheid’ and will leave Covid-19 spreading, mutating and threatening the lives and livelihoods of us all for years to come.

Ghebreyesus began his media briefing by congratulating the government of Guinea, health workers who worked in situations of “very high personal risk” and “partners who provided financial and technical support,” for Guinea’s successful fight against Ebola.

Below is the part of WHO Director General Ghebreyesus’ June 18, 2021, address to reporters that’s relevant to this blog post:

As you know, Guinea was one of three countries that was affected by the devastating West African Ebola outbreak in 2014 and 2015.

Thanks to the lessons learned from that outbreak and new tools including vaccines, Guinea managed to contain the outbreak in just four months, and prevent it from spreading beyond its borders.

Nearly 11,000 people were vaccinated against Ebola.

But our work is far from over. We must continue to support survivors and monitor their health, without creating stigma.

Our teams are also finalizing a 90-day post-epidemic resilience plan to support local health authorities, health workers and communities.

This success shows how an outbreak can be brought under control with the combination of community engagement, effective public health measures and the equitable use of vaccines.

COVID-19 is a different disease that spreads more easily than Ebola, but the approach is the same.

And yet even after 18 months, the ineffective use of public health and social measures, increased social mixing and vaccine inequity continue to give COVID-19 an opportunity to mutate, spread and kill.

The global failure to share vaccines equitably is fueling a two-track pandemic that is now taking its toll on some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Every region has countries that are now facing a steep increase in cases and deaths.

Many countries in Latin America have rapidly increasing epidemics, and others have plateaued at a high level.

In Africa, cases have increased by 52% just in the past week, and deaths have increased by 32%.

And we expect things to only get worse.

Less than 1% of Africa’s population has been vaccinated.

Vaccines donated next year will be far too late for those who are dying today, or being infected today, or at risk today.

Our global targets are to vaccinate at least 10% of the population of every country by September, at least 40% by the end of the year, and 70% by the middle of next year.

These are the critical milestones we must reach together to end the pandemic.

More than half of all high- and upper-middle income countries and economies have now administered enough doses to fully vaccinate at least 20% of their populations. Just 3 out of 79 low- and lower-middle income countries have reached the same level.

We very much appreciate the vaccine donations announced by the G7 and others. And we thank those countries including the United States that have committed to sharing doses in June and July.

We urge others to follow suit. We need vaccines to be donated now to save lives.

WHO will continue to support countries to apply public health and social measures to keep people safe.

And we continue to support countries to ready their systems and plans to roll out vaccines once they get them.

But we do not control the global supply of vaccines. The countries and companies that do must play their part to produce more, and share more to achieve WHO’s global targets.

We continue to explore every avenue for increasing production of vaccines, especially in Africa, and we will have more to say about that on Monday.

And even as we continue to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, our regular work continues, across the spectrum of health issues.

This week alone, we opened a new country office in Kuwait, published a new implementation guide on suicide prevention, and yesterday we launched the Global Evidence Review on Health and Migration.

Refugees and migrants are among the most vulnerable people in our world, and suffer from a range of physical and mental health problems.

And yet data on the health of refugees and migrants is scarce and needs to be improved to support the best policy decisions.

WHO’s new Global Evidence Review on Health and Migration will set evidence-informed norms and standards to address data gaps and support global guidance and strategies on improving the health of refugees and migrants.

It’s another way WHO is working to fulfill its mission to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable.

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Obert Madondo
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, photographer, activist, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. Obert is the founder and editor of The Zimbabwean Progressive and The Canadian Progressive, both of which are independent political blogs dedicated to producing fearless, evidence-based, adversarial, unapologetic, progressive and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad