The Financial Express

Covid-19 vaccines: How the other half might die

| Updated: December 13, 2020 20:02:45

Covid-19 vaccines: How the other half might die

The report is stark. It is concerning. After a year of living through dangerous times, the danger being the overwhelming presence of the coronavirus pandemic in our lives, with all its ramifications, we now have the good news of a goodly number of vaccines on the way to relieve us of the malady. The vaccines give us hope, or should. But the euphoria which ought to have underscored our sentiments, here in our part of the world, on reports of vaccines about to save us all from the scourge of the virus, is not there. It is not there, for no fault of ours.

Go back to all those media reports of a hoarding of vaccines --- Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, et cetera -- by the world's rich nations. It is again an eerie journey back to that old question of North versus South, of rich arrayed against the poor. One only hopes the world does not go back there, but when the world's prosperous nations, home to no more than 14 per cent of the global population, end up acquiring 53 per cent of the vaccines that are already out there for themselves, prospects for the less privileged of countries are bleak.

Lebanon does not have vaccines for more than 15 per cent of its population. And Bangladesh, we have been informed through global assessments of the situation, has vaccines for a mere 9 per cent of its vast population. Add to Lebanon and Bangladesh, the predicament a whole range of nations in Asia, Africa and Latin America could be up against, now that the affluent states have grabbed all those vaccines for themselves.

The coronavirus is not a typical issue related to international relations or global trade. It is a threat, an invisible enemy which continues to lay societies low everywhere. The response on the part of governments everywhere has been one of attempts, feeble though they have been, to fight off the malady. The World Health Organisation has repeatedly stressed the global nature of the issue and has in line with the nature of the threat left no one in any doubt about the need for a collective global response to the problem. That principle is now truly about to be undermined, indeed is undermined, if the world's economically powerful nations take home that 53 per cent of vaccines without a care for the less fortunate of societies on the planet.

So where do we, people who inhabit the poorer regions of the world, go now? The idea may sound far-fetched, but WHO and in turn the United Nations might think of calling for a coordinated approach to the vaccine distribution issue, one that will have at its core the principle of an equitable handing out of the vaccines for all. Canada has acquired vaccines to the extent that each of its citizens can be inoculated five times.

That does not look like a practical idea, given that millions of people in nations beyond Canada will have no vaccine to tide over the crisis. Of course, Donald Trump's arbitrary withdrawal from WHO has made it harder for the organisation to engage with the US on a solution to the pandemic, but it could take advantage of the chink of new hope now offered by the incoming Biden administration. WHO ought to approach the Biden team on the vaccine distribution issue.

And for us in Bangladesh, the priorities have been obvious for months. Even as we join forces with other nations for a fairer distribution of vaccines, it should be our focus now to establish and strengthen contacts with India, Russia and China on the chances of acquiring all those life-saving vaccines from them. The Indians have made progress in the vaccine region. The Russians have been injecting themselves with the vaccine produced by their scientists. One is quite certain the Chinese are not far behind. Given that our diplomatic ties with these three nations are close and indeed getting closer, Bangladesh's government should be stepping up efforts to acquire the quantum of vaccines it needs to roll back the pandemic in the country.

The rich, be they individuals or nations, have historically proved that for all their pious expressions of sentiments on the need for a just world to define the lives of people everywhere they cannot simply be taken at their word. That 53 per cent already hoarded is the latest manifestation of this truth.

One final point: nations which are now left to struggle over the remaining 47 per cent of vaccines developed in the West might consider a broadening out of their approach to the issue. Regional organisations --- SAARC, OIC, ASEAN, the African Union -- could take up the issue.

Let's face it. The acquisition of all those vaccines by the rich will revive that old question, with all due respect to Susan George -- of how the other half, in the deprived regions of the globe, might die owing to the predatory instincts of the powerful and wealthy half dominating our world.

Should that be permitted to happen? Shouldn't morality come in where narrow national self-interest threatens to leave 86 per cent of the global population terribly vulnerable before a pandemic that will not go away anytime soon?

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