As the COVID-19 pandemic continued into 2021, extending and intensifying its reach into communities, particularly in the global South, a number of concerned Atlantic Fellows came together to discuss the issue of the unequal availability of vaccines to certain populations. After a number of discussions within the Fellows’ community, a statement emerged by and on behalf of Atlantic Fellows around the world about the acute urgency of achieving vaccine equity. You can read their statement below:
Equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines is a matter of social justice and reparation, not charity
After months of sobering statistics spotlighting the inequalities at the heart of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, recent weeks have finally seen some positive movement toward justice. Prominent figures including 100 former world leaders have issued a call to the G7 to ensure that wealthier countries pay for poorer nations’ vaccines. The United States has announced that it will donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to COVAX, the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access scheme, to distribute to countries in need. In addition, several nations are supporting a waiver on intellectual property restrictions that will allow countries to produce generic and affordable vaccines.
These initiatives – and many more – are urgently needed. Of the 832 million COVID-19 vaccine doses administered globally, 82% have gone to high- or upper-middle-income countries, and just 0.2% to low-income nations,according to World Health Organization figures. While 1 in 4 people have been vaccinated in high-income countries, the ratio plummets to 1 in 500 in poorer states. Initial commitments by COVAX failed to achieve the aim of vaccinating the world’s population because Western countries proceeded separately to develop vaccines and care for their own people. Richer nations rushed to purchase a significant proportion of the global vaccine supply – far more than was needed for their own citizens, even those at very low risk of complications from the disease. As a result, many countries were left without,and left behind.
To achieve true vaccine justice will require moving beyond aid models of vaccine donation,in which poorer countries are gifted vaccine leftovers: vaccine equity demands reparative justice – not charity.
Across the globe, vaccine inequity is also being compounded by infrastructural constraints. Local systemic injustices emerge as vulnerable populations have the least access to vaccines. Overall, many of the current challenges we are witnessing are the inevitable outcome of a long history of inequitable support for nations to develop the infrastructure that allows them to independently support scientific development. The unequal power relations rooted in colonial endeavors and imperial interests have shifted resources out of low- and middle-income countries to their higher-income counterparts. This includes not only material resources, but also human resources. The Global South’s material and resources have supported the Global North’s economies for centuries. This is exacerbated by the problem of brain drain, by which talent is pulled from low- and middle-income countries to their higher-income counterparts, perpetuating dependence and highlighting inequities. For example, it is estimated that researchers from lower-income countries who move to higher-income countries are able to produce 10 times more patents than their compatriots who remain at home.
Scientific and health sovereignty are strategic drivers of equitable access to health. Although rich countries are often lauded for the aid they give, what poorer countries urgently need is international cooperation that is not mediated through a paternalistic charitable framework, but instead one that allows them to further enhance and develop resources within their own infrastructure and retain the talent needed to generate innovation within. We must move from a charity model of international cooperation to a model that can guarantee health access from a rights and social justice perspective.
COVID-19 is currently one of the largest threats the world faces, but this does not mean there will not be others in future. As we move forward, it is essential that we learn from the pandemic to build a better world. We must recognize the need for solidarity across nations and multilateral institutions to help uplift the global community. Reimagining global health means that we must first acknowledge that health and technology improvements have not been equally shared, and then devise strategies to address it. We urgently need long-term strategies to ensure that all nations are prepared to meet future needs.It is time to acknowledge health as a human right, rather than continue to allow it to be framed as a commodity. If we are serious about building a more equitable world, we must begin by accelerating to achieve healthier societies everywhere.
Background about the Atlantic Fellows
Atlantic Fellows are leaders in their field of work with a deep resolve for a more equal and just world. Fellows come from all walks of life and a variety of professions, but are united in their pursuit of equity. They include advocates, artists, journalists, lawyers, business professionals, health practitioners, government officials, academics, and researchers, who are working across diverse settings and contexts, and from within the communities they serve. They seek to bring lasting improvements,locally and globally.
They graduate from seven programs, based at centers of excellence:
Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain Health is based at the Global Brain Health Institute, Trinity College Dublin,Ireland; and University of California, San Francisco, U.S..
The program is dedicated to protecting the world’s aging population from threats to brain health.
Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity in South Africa, based at Khayelitsha, Cape Town, tackles social and economic inequities in South Africa.
Atlantic Fellows for Heath Equity US + Global, based at The George Washington University, Washington D.C., supports global multidisciplinary leaders who are advancing health equity in their communities and institutions.
Atlantic Fellows for Health Equity in Southeast Asia, based at The Equity Initiative and the China Medical Board, China and Thailand, is for leaders from 10 ASEAN countries and China who are working to address health inequities.
Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, based at Columbia University, U.S., and Nelson Mandela Foundation, South Africa, supports Fellows in their personal development and leadership capacity,which catalyzes broader social change.
Atlantic Fellows for Social Equity,based at The University of Melbourne, Australia, is an Indigenous-led social change program that harnesses Indigenous knowledge and ingenuity for social impact.
Atlantic Fellows for Social and Economic Equity, based at the International Inequalities Institute, LSE, builds and supports activists, policy-makers and movement-builders from around the world to explore and challenge root causes of inequality.