OPINION: Vaccines offer hope but global solidarity is the only way out of this pandemic

by Anne Gallagher | Commonwealth Foundation
Friday, 22 January 2021 13:27 GMT

A medical worker puts a vial into a syringe at a vaccination centre inside Harpenden Public Halls, amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Harpenden, Britain, January 22, 2021. REUTERS/Peter Cziborra

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I’ve worked for three decades with intergovernmental organisations and am deeply concerned about the lack of solidarity on vaccines. We must cooperate to get through this pandemic

By Anne Gallagher

Safe and effective vaccines against the COVID-19 virus have been developed at a rate that outpaced even the most optimistic predictions. Many countries, including Britain, where I live, have begun rolling out ambitious immunisation programmes whereby tens of millions will receive their ‘jab’ over the next several months. But there is a dark side to this story.

It has been estimated that at least 90% of people in 67 low-income countries—including more than 20 Commonwealth Member States—will not receive a COVID-19 vaccination this year because wealthy countries have struck bilateral deals that reserve more doses than they need, and developers of the vaccine are reluctant to share their intellectual property.

This is a perilous situation for everyone. The pressure that governments are under to secure vaccines for their people is understandable. While the global nature of the pandemic is evident, the instinct to narrow our gaze is hard-wired. It is the damage to our communities that we are witnessing first-hand; it is the suffering of our loved ones, our relationships and our economies that is the most proximate.

But in this crisis, that instinctive inward focus—what has been termed ‘vaccine nationalism’—comes at an awful cost. Those countries that are most in need, because of precarious health systems and already shattered economies, will go without. This, in turn, will wreak havoc on global death rates and the global economy.

Nobody is safe until everyone is safe.

Efforts to widen access to the vaccine are underway. COVAX, a global procurement mechanism, aims to pool funds to accelerate the rollout of safe and reliable vaccines in developing countries.

Initially, COVAX is seeking to buy up enough vaccines to provide doses for 20% of each country’s population. Some wealthy countries are promising to donate their unused doses and the United States, under the newly-inaugurated Biden administration, has just pledged to join the facility. But the timeline for distribution remains uncertain and those in need of a more immediate solution are looking elsewhere. From South East Asia to Africa, governments are turning to China, which is offering priority access to its own home-grown vaccine.

After almost three decades of service in intergovernmental organisations, my concern is that this uncertainty undermines the idea of solidarity: the notion that the human family—or at least groups of States within that broader family—stand firmly together in times of need.

Solidarity is central to the 54-nation Commonwealth project: the idea that this disparate assortment of countries, united by only the most tenuous connections of history and language, is somehow more than the sum of its parts.

How can the Commonwealth bring the promise of solidarity to life in relation to access to vaccines?

First: all Commonwealth countries should support COVAX to the utmost of their ability—including through increasing their financial contributions where possible. Doing so is a win-win. COVAX is the only hope for poorer countries, and rigorous studies have shown that wealthy nations will reap the greatest economic benefits from equitable distribution of vaccines.

Second: the Commonwealth should affirm its role as ‘a recognised intergovernmental champion of small States’ by coordinating Member State purchases of enough vaccines for all Commonwealth Small Island States, thereby managing the risk of delays in the COVAX rollout. New Zealand, which has committed to helping its small island neighbours access vaccines, stands as a shining example of solidarity in action.

Third: Commonwealth Institutions and Member States should act to ensure that intellectual property (IP) rights do not present an obstacle to equitable access. Some countries, including South Africa and India, are calling for a temporary waiver of existing rules in relation to COVID-19 vaccines and medicines. This is not the only way and the Commonwealth should also explore other measures, including voluntary pooling and licensing of IP rights and pandemic-sensitive trade arrangements.

Finally, while it must ultimately be judged on actions, the Commonwealth should use its platforms to make the moral and economic case for equitable access to vaccines. The case is clear. It must be articulated with precision and communicated throughout and beyond the Commonwealth. 

It is time for our Commonwealth to show the world what solidarity looks like by standing up and speaking out.

Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation, President of the International Catholic Migration Commission, and a leading authority on human trafficking.

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