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Vaccine inequality.

As we discussed in episode eight of the EarthRights podcast, the Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted but also exacerbated many existing inequalities within our society.

Based on this, in that episode, we explained why there is an urgent need for an ethical recovery from Covid-19. However, as we begin our recovery and life slowly returns to ‘normal’ we are seeing a new type of inequality starting to arise – vaccine inequality.

In early 2020, the Coalition for the Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) led efforts to finance and coordinate research for a vaccine against Covid-19. This led many companies and academic institutions to set to work, all embarking on the global race for a vaccine.

As research was underway and talks of a successful vaccine were being whispered throughout parliament, the British government invested heavily in a bid to ensure that the UK could put an end to the pandemic once and for all.

According to ITV news, the UK has currently secured 40 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, 100 million of the Oxford vaccine, 17 million doses from Moderna and millions of other doses from various vaccines that are still in clinical stages.

This puts the UK’s vaccine portfolio at over 407 million doses, enough to vaccinate the whole population five times over.

Of course, for British citizens, this is amazing, it is well understood that a vaccine is one of the best ways to get us out of this pandemic, and the speed at which these vaccines have been produced is a remarkable feat of scientific discovery. But, unlike the UK, many countries simply do not have billions of pounds readily available to invest in vaccinating their populations and in some cases, the vaccines are just simply not available.

Across the globe, the UK has been criticized for its seemingly individualistic approach in dealing with the social consequences of the pandemic. This has now translated into its approach towards vaccinations, with the People’s Vaccine Alliance criticising the UK for ‘hoarding’ vaccines.

According to recent analysis, rich nations, representing just 14% of the world’s population have bought up more than half (53%) of all the most promising vaccines.

In desperation to secure immediate vaccinations, a senior official from the Philippines went so far as to announce that they would let thousands of its healthcare workers, mainly nurses, take up jobs in Britain and Germany if the two countries agreed to donate coronavirus vaccines.

Britain’s health ministry said it was not interested in such a deal and its priority was to use shots domestically but that they would share surplus vaccines internationally in the future.

Steps are being taken to reduce this inequality, notably through a new initiative led by the World Health Organization (WHO) called Covax.

Covax hopes to deliver more than two billion doses to people in 190 countries in less than a year. In particular, it wants to ensure 92 poorer countries will receive access to vaccines at the same time as, and not after, the 98 wealthier countries.

So far, Covax has raised £4.3bn, with the UK government providing £548m.

However, internal documents at Covax have shown that the scheme has a very high risk of failure, potentially leaving nations that are home to billions of people with no access to vaccines until as late as 2024.

But there are also further concerns, notably with the vaccination of refugees, homeless people and those without proper paperwork or classified identification.

Worldwide there are 80 million displaced people, and 85% of those live in countries with middle or low incomes. As arguments are brewing over whose responsibility it is to vaccinate those who are displaced, NGOs and campaign groups have expressed urgent concern that refugees are being left behind.

One source has suggested that more than a third of the 114 countries which have instigated a Covid-19 vaccination programme globally have ignored displaced people in their national strategies.

This is incredibly worrying, it is more important now than ever that we approach recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic from a collective view point, as written by Paula Erizanu in the Guardian – “In an interconnected world, no country is safe until every country is safe.”

These inequalities are also not just limited to a global scale, but according to recent research black over-80s in England are half as likely as white people to have had Covid jab.

Indeed, analysis of vaccine data has shown how in Alum Rock, a deprived and ethnically diverse area in inner city Birmingham, just six in ten of those aged 80 or over have had the vaccine. In comparison, a few miles north in Sutton Four Oaks, an affluent, predominantly white area, close to 95% of over 80’s have been vaccinated.

One reason for this lack of uptake is false conspiracy theories surrounding the vaccine, which are reported to have spread among some in these communities. But according to a document prepared in January by the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE) the major reason is “lower trust and confidence in vaccine efficacy and safety” which is linked to “structural and institutional racism and discrimination”.

According to SAGE ethnic minority groups have “historically been under-represented within health research, including vaccine trials, which can influence trust in a particular vaccine being perceived as appropriate and safe.”

Given that the coronavirus has thrived off systemic inequalities, vaccine distribution should not reflect this reality rather than being another race and equality issue in healthcare.

As Dr Sridhar Venkatapuran, senior lecturer in global health and philosophy at King’s College London told EarthRights in episode eight: “At the moment,we are so focused on numbers, millions of vaccines, millions of tests, but who is getting these? Is the homeless person getting a test? Is the refugee getting a vaccine? Every person has a right to be healthy and to be protected from danger.”

Listen to Episode 8
Pippa Neill

Co-founder and Co-producer