‘No one is safe until all are safe’ should be more than just a slogan

If there has ever been a moment in recent history when humanity was able to come together as a whole, that moment is here and now

A medical worker shows new covid-19 vaccine.

A medical worker shows new covid-19 vaccine.

Getty Images

A quick glance at the world map of COVID-19 vaccine distribution illustrates how, yet again, the world’s poor are being left to their own fate, while the affluent parts of the globe are gradually returning to some sort of normality.

Vaccines have been the real game-changers in avoiding repeated lockdowns and preventing public health systems from being overwhelmed. However, when it comes to a pandemic on a scale unseen in living memory, global inequalities that have become literally a matter of life and death are being exposed in their full unfairness and injustice.

The coronavirus pandemic has tested our values system as much as our wisdom, and humanity has not always covered itself in glory as a result. We have clearly failed to ensure that a lack of resources will not cause additional suffering from the pandemic.

Not many, at least in principle, would contest the logic of the statement that during a pandemic on the scale of COVID-19 “no one is safe until all are safe.” Unfortunately, in practice, we have seen many countries with the economic and scientific prowess to develop vaccines retreating to their nation-state fortresses and taking the approach not only that charity begins at home, but also that charity is done only at home. This is instead of adopting a holistic, global strategy that will more quickly open the world for business for the benefit of all — a moral obligation, yes, but also a self-serving one. Worse, some of the wealthiest countries are accumulating stockpiles of COVID-19 vaccine doses, while others have almost none.

We have become accustomed, each time we board a passenger aircraft, to hear a flight attendant issue the instructions: “In case of a cabin pressure emergency, put on your own mask first before assisting others.” There is some logic in this. We cannot help others if we are not well and strong enough ourselves. By this view, it is understandable that when vaccines became widely available, the countries where the treatments were developed were first to enjoy their benefits. While this hardly makes for an incontestable moral argument, it is probably a reflection of human nature and how it translates into politics as it does, not necessarily as it should.

However, this argument has already been superseded by the widening gap between countries that have administered a second or third dose of vaccine to their population, and those unable to provide even a first jab. This is no longer about the high-income nations looking after themselves before they support low-income countries, but about short-sighted neglect that costs lives. Nearly half of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine and 2.74 billion people are fully vaccinated. However, only 2.5 percent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

During the G7 summit in the UK in June, leaders of the major industrial nations pledged 1 billion doses of vaccine to low-income countries. As in other areas of critical importance, summits produce pledges, but the reality on the ground is very different, and so far only 15 percent of those doses have materialized.

To make things worse, according to a report by London-based analytics specialists Airfinity, it is estimated that the G7 and EU will have 1 billion more vaccines than needed by the end of this year, and 241 million doses could go to waste by the end of 2021 unless they are redistributed. Would it not make sense, then, to embark on a program to redistribute this surplus to countries where vaccination levels are low, while also building capacity to administer to the most vulnerable in those countries?

Airfinity’s report claims that if available surplus vaccine stocks, along with those expected to be available, were donated and distributed, it could spare nearly a million deaths by mid-2022. This is a staggering number and surely cannot leave those who can sanction such an emergency operation indifferent.

Even before the pandemic, the baseline for these poorer societies — the well-being of their people and the state of their economies — was much lower than that of the affluent world. COVID-19, if not contained, could cause further devastation. The main barrier to full vaccination in most high-income countries comes from self-indulgent anti-vaxxers and those who refuse to take any precautions, such as wearing masks; it is not a lack of vaccines. The idea that for these countries the next stage is a booster jab, a third dose, when some countries are desperate for even a first dose, is preposterous. Any delay in diverting this stockpile of 1 billion vaccines, much of which will expire in the next few months, means more suffering for the most fragile countries, which could lead to their health systems failing to cope, their economies failing to function, and political instability as a result.

If there has ever been a moment in recent history when humanity was able to come together as a whole, that moment is here and now.

In 1946, the World Health Organization articulated the right to health with these words: “The enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition.” Moreover, the WHO saw the health of peoples as fundamental to the attainment of peace and security and dependent on the “fullest cooperation of individuals and states.”

This vision that world leaders committed their countries to all those years ago is facing one of its most acute tests. Future generations will judge the leaders of the rich and powerful nations according to whether they lived up to this commitment not only for their own people’s sakes, but also for the benefit of the more vulnerable when they needed it most.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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