As the world steadies its sights on a post-pandemic reality, our contributor Alyx Carolus, unpacks the ongoing geopolitics of the covid-19 vaccine. With the number of vaccines approved by global entities growing, it begs the questions of true efficacy and equitable distribution around the world. Read on as Alyx enlightens us on vaccine access in the Global South and conversations around why getting the vaccine is a privilege not to be taken lightly.
A World Between the Vaccine and Me
March 2020 remains a significant time period for most of us around the world: it represents the last few moments of life unaffected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Soon after, we saw global lockdowns, shutdowns, and the emergence of the first wave in places like the US, Italy, and China. There has been immense loss, tragedy and trauma and simply put, we’re just not the same. A year later, we’ve seen the start of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and soon we’ll see most of the world vaccinated against this virus. But where are developing countries in these conversations? The reality is, if the whole world doesn’t adequately vaccinate – we won’t be able to safely get rid of this pandemic and loss will follow.
Where is the Global South in Geopolitics of the Covid-19 vaccine?
South Africa forms part of the Global South (which is a more appropriate term than third world/first world country). In late 2020, South Africa played an integral part in the global vaccination trials and according to The Lancet journal, the population’s rising cases at the time displayed the need for vaccine trials. South Africa had a very strict approach to COVID-19 in the beginning, being one of the first countries who went into one of the strictest lockdown levels. The Lancet explains, “Africa, similar to all other parts of the world, faces a pandemic of uncertain duration. Health systems in Africa are particularly overstretched and the social measures to limit transmission are placing a heavy socioeconomic burden on vulnerable populations.”
South Africa is participating in the COVAX program, one of the pillars of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator. The whole point of the program, headed up by WHO, Gavi and CEPI is to allow for equal vaccine access around the world, especially for poorer countries who don’t have the resources either in the form of adequate infrastructure and money. In early 2021, the local South African government shared plans to roll out vaccines in three phases, with healthcare workers at phase one, essential workers and those at high-risk at phase two and eventually, the rest of the population in phase three. In February 2021, they began giving vaccines to healthcare workers on the frontlines.
Will You or Won’t You?
In the midst of waiting for the vaccine rollout, much frustration has erupted seeing citizens from wealthier countries boasting about how they don’t want to take the vaccine. Nations who have secured enough vaccine doses for their populations (some twice over, like Canada) while the rest of the world waits to be taken care of. As this The Economist article explains, “Only a handful of African countries have been able to afford vaccines, and many lack enough cold chain capacity to store them. Vaccine hoarding is also to blame for the unequal roll-out of the jabs.”
While I understand that historically, the medical industry has used people of color to experiment on with traumatic consequences; there is distrust fostered in marginalized communities and the hesitation is valid. But the fact remains, that the choice is a privilege that not everyone has. Ultimately, the future is looking like digital health passports, vaccination cards and even less access for people from developing countries to travel. COVID-19 has exposed the geopolitical aspect of a pandemic and how wealthier countries can ensure the safety of their citizens while the rest of the developing world is on standby. Sadly, we’re good enough for vaccine trials and partaking in the manufacturing process of vaccines, but we do not have the same access to these solutions.
Variants, Vaccinations, and Vocal Support
Late last year, South Africa was one of the first to discover the 501.V2 variant, which then got dubbed ‘The South African Variant’, though we can’t actually trace where exactly this strain came from. A recent article from BBC states, “There is no evidence that the South Africa variant causes more serious illness for the vast majority of people who become infected.” explaining, “The South African variant carries a mutation, called N501Y, that appears to make it more contagious or easy to spread.”
Nonetheless, the impact was immediate and SA was put on no-fly lists. It was hard to travel before (if you didn’t have another passport or dual citizenship from a developed country) but now it is impossible to even move abroad. The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over and it’s shared how the world will respond to disasters to come. Unfortunately, the handling of the crisis implies, this won’t be the last pandemic in our lifetimes. As we encroach on spaces, getting closer to natural habitats and animals, more viruses of this nature are set to arrive. But in this moment, COVID-19 has once again exposed the importance of equitable access. None of us are safe, if all of us are not safe.