Commentary: In COVID-19 vaccination drive, no one is safe until everyone is safe
Facilitating affordable and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccine requires bold political leadership and support for developing countries, says Mohamed A El-Erian.
LAGUNA BEACH, California: Recognising that “no one is safe until everyone is safe”, the G7 recently announced additional steps to facilitate globally more “affordable and equitable access to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics” to combat COVID-19.
But translating stated intent into effective action will require both bold political leadership at home and support for developing countries that goes well beyond financial aid. Getting it right won’t be easy, but the effort is essential if rich countries wish to avoid living in a fortress with the mentality to match.
The current inequality in vaccine availability and deployment is stark. According to United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, just ten countries account for 75 per cent of all COVID-19 vaccination so far. More than 130 countries have not administered a single dose.
In the face of such inequality, the G7 agreed to increase pandemic-related aid to US$7.5 billion and urged others, including G20 countries and multilateral organizations, to enhance their support for developing countries, be it through the COVAX facility or the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator initiative.
These actions are not just the right thing to do, given the considerable risks facing developing countries; they are also in the interest of developed countries.
RISKS NEW VARIANTS POSE
Unless the rest of the world is successful in combating the virus, new variants will multiply and confront advanced economies with a seemingly never-ending series of potential lose-lose scenarios.
The first stems from the risk of “importing” new variants that overcome existing vaccines and renew awful cycles of infection, hospitalization, death, and lockdown. Already, the battle against COVID-19 has been made harder by the emergence of new virus variants, like the Kent (England) and South African strains.
Fortunately, although these variants have increased the speed of transmission, they appear not to have derailed the effectiveness of therapeutics and vaccines.
Minimising the risk of yet more destabilising variants is crucial if countries are to turn the corner on a shock that has wrecked lives and livelihoods. The alternative is to adopt a bunker-like approach to borders.
This is no longer a two-horse race. We are now all cheering for immunisation to outrace not only the original virus, but also the new variants.
If this does not occur, many countries – and particularly those that have made considerable progress in reducing infections and administering vaccines – will repeatedly face a difficult choice: Either risk being disrupted by a new variant from abroad or sharply curtail the inward and outward flow of citizens, residents, and visitors.
And neither option would be easily sustainable.
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HELPING OTHER COUNTRIES BATTLE COVID-19
There are other ways in which helping others in their battle against COVID-19 is a national priority, particularly for Western countries and their allies.
Already, China has enhanced its influence and standing in the developing world, both directly, through “mask diplomacy” (providing free face masks to reduce virus transmission), and indirectly, by showing that its governance model is more effective than Western countries’ in overcoming unanticipated adversity.
Now, China is busy offering vaccines, as is Russia. The Africa Medical Supplies Platform, for example, recently announced that the African Union had been offered 300 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, together with funding for countries that need it.
An effective G7 approach to making vaccination more accessible to developing countries would help counter the view that it has abandoned the global stage. It is also consistent with the Biden administration objective of global re-engagement.
The G7’s effectiveness in this domain will entail more than delivering fully on its latest set of important promises. Time is of the essence, be it in making the financial aid available to developing countries or donating to them developed countries’ anticipated and already-secured excess doses.
(Listen to the behind-the-scenes considerations and discussions going into what might be Singapore’s biggest vaccination programme ever on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast:)
G7 MUST GO BEYOND AID
The G7 must also go beyond such aid in at least two ways.
First, where needed and when asked, member countries should provide technical assistance and logistical support to overcome micro failures that disrupt local supply chains (an “imperfection” that undermined earlier vaccination efforts, such as against malaria, for too long, and can now be overcome more easily).
Second, the G7 should press vaccine manufacturers to share their knowledge with local producers and facilitate their legal and operational ability to do so.
The road ahead is difficult. There will be opposition at many levels, including from those wishing to spend money and effort only at home and those seeking to protect the current profit opportunities from COVID-19 vaccines and future profit opportunities from the scientific breakthroughs that the vaccines incorporate.
But as hard as all this, the alternative is even harder: Living with virus disruptions, living in national bunkers, or both.
Mohamed A El-Erian, Chief Economic Adviser at Allianz and President of Queens’ College, University of Cambridge, was Chairman of US President Barack Obama’s Global Development Council.