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January 27, 2021

Rich, poor vaccine divide worsening: WHO


January 27, 2021

Geneva: The Covid-19 vaccine divide between the rich and poor nations is worsening by the day, the World Health Organisation warned on Tuesday, insisting the failure to distribute doses fairly could cost the global economy trillions of dollars.

The WHO said it needed $26 billion this year for its programme aimed at speeding up the development, procurement and equitable delivery of vaccines, treatments and tests to beat the coronavirus pandemic.

"Rich countries are rolling out vaccines, while the world’s least-developed countries watch and wait," lamented WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. "Every day that passes, the divide grows larger between the world’s haves and have nots," he told a press conference.

"Vaccine nationalism might serve short-term political goals. But it’s in every nation’s own medium and long-term economic interest to support vaccine equity." Tedros cited a study commissioned by the Research Foundation of the International Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 45 million companies in over 100 countries.

"Vaccine nationalism could cost the global economy up to $9.2 trillion, and almost half of that -- $4.5 trillion -- would be incurred in the wealthiest economies," he said. The report said that the financial damage of the pandemic in wealthy countries could not be fixed unless the impact of the crisis in developing nations was also addressed, due to the inter-connectivity of economies around the globe.

Tedros said investing in the so-called ACT Accelerator programme, to try to curtail the pandemic on a pooled and equitable basis, was therefore not charity, but simply "economic common sense".

Tedros said that exactly a year ago, fewer than 1,500 cases of Covid-19 had been reported to the WHO, including just 23 outside of China, where the first clusters of infections were discovered.

More than 2.1 million deaths have been recorded since then. "This week, we expect to reach 100 million reported cases," said Tedros. "Numbers can make us numb to what they represent: every death is someone’s parent, someone’s partner, someone’s child, someone’s friend.

"Vaccines are giving us hope, which is why every life we lose now is even more tragic. We must take heart, take hope and take action." He urged people to stick to the basics of physical distancing, hand washing, avoiding crowds and wearing masks while waiting their turn to get immunised.

Michael Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, said only one disease, smallpox, had ever been eradicated, so the availability of vaccines against Covid-19 did not mean the disease could be wiped of the face of the Earth. "The bar for success is reducing the capacity of this virus to kill, put people in hospital and destroy our economic and social lives," he said.

Meanwhile Bruce Aylward, the WHO’s ACT Accelerator hub chief, said the goal of vaccination was merely to take the heat out of the pandemic by the end of 2021. "But it is going to take making some tough choices about how we equitably use and allocate what is, right now, a scarce product -- and will be for some months to come."

In a related development, Dutch police arrested over 200 rioters after protests against a coronavirus curfew turned violent for a third night, police said on Tuesday, in the worst unrest to hit the Netherlands in four decades.

At least 10 police officers were injured in the latest clashes, which left a trail of looted shops and burned cars in cities including Rotterdam, Amsterdam and The Hague on Monday night. While a majority of Dutch people have peacefully observed the country’s first curfew since World War II, the riots have spread since the 9:00pm to 4:30am restriction came into effect on Saturday.

"We can confirm that at least 200 arrests were made," police spokesman Sherlo Esajas told AFP. Police added that more arrests could follow. Police unions said it was the worst rioting in four decades, referring to clashes between law officials and squatters in the 1980s as they were evicted from illegally-occupied buildings.

Police used water cannon against rioters in Rotterdam. Mayors of several cities reacted with anger, with Rotterdam’s Ahmed Aboutaleb calling rioters "shameless thieves," the NOS national newscaster reported.

Meantime, thousands of Australians defied coronavirus rules on Tuesday to protest the country’s national day, held on the anniversary of British colonisation of the vast continent that its Indigenous population marks as "Invasion Day".

Officially recognised as Australia Day, January 26 also sees annual rallies drawing attention to the injustices faced by Indigenous people and calling on the government to change the date of the national holiday. The celebration of the origins of the modern nation is a time of mourning for Indigenous Australians, who have inhabited the land for 65,000 years and view the arrival of British settlers in 1788 as the beginning of two centuries of pain and suffering.

Thousands of people gathered at a central Sydney park in defiance of police threats of fines and arrests for breaching a 500-person limit on public gatherings, though organisers called off a march through the city that usually follows.

Police said five people were arrested, including one who was charged with assaulting a police officer, but praised the crowds as largely peaceful. Authorities earlier refused to waive the cap on numbers, despite no new cases being detected in Australia’s biggest city for more than a week.

Chants of "Sovereignty was never ceded" and "No justice, no peace" rang out while others held up placards with slogans including "Not a Date to Celebrate" and "Black Lives Matter". "For us it represents cultural genocide. Our families being ripped apart. Years and years of disease and famine. And the intergenerational impacts of that are still being felt today," Gomeroi man Dylan Booth said.