Reckless rhetoric and vaccine privilege

July 25, 2021

Countries like Pakistan, Brazil and South African nations need to be catered to, or the global community runs the risk of letting Covid-19 evolve into some new, more dangerous form

Reckless rhetoric and vaccine privilege

As the theatre of the global news-media continues to play report after report on the supply and demand of the vaccine to the fear-riddled global community, the usual economic disparity is evident. The rich get higher-efficacy vaccines, while the poor get the scraps. Perhaps we have been too focused on media personalities and politicians playing a tug of war. The masses have lost track of how disparate the availability of this vaccine is. Hosts from Fox News, Newsmax and the like spread fear against the vaccine, while the likes of Dr Anthony Fucci and Dr Faisal Sultan try to get people to take the disease seriously. The trouble really lies in access.

So far, about 3.5 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been administered globally. Over 30 million people are getting jabbed each day, including children as young as 12 years, with certain vaccines now approved for those as young as three. There is great inequality to its distribution.

40 percent of the Covid-19 vaccines administered globally have gone to people in 27 wealthy nations that represent 11 percent of the global population. Countries making up the poorest 11 percent have gotten just 1.6 percent of the vaccines administered so far, according to an analysis of data collected by the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker. As of April, the US, for example, has 24 percent of the world’s vaccinations but just 4.3 percent of its population. Pakistan has 0.1 percent of the vaccine coverage for 2.7 percent of the global population.

In an interview on Bloomberg Quicktake, associate professor of epidemiology at John Hopkins, Keri Althoff, conceded that it would be impossible to return to the old world order without achieving a global level of herd immunity. However, she argued that the disproportionate rate of distribution was justified by the fact that the US had the highest number of cases in the world, with 31 million infected patients.

As of now, there are 15 approved vaccines globally, with efficacies against the currently known variants ranging from 50 to 95 percent. But, as was pointed out in the Bloomberg interview, should a country continue to suffer under the pandemic without the vaccine, the disease will burn through the population and is likely to evolve into a variant that would be resistant to the vaccines. As much as it may seem that money makes the world go round, saving only the rich is not an option. Countries like Pakistan, Brazil and South African nations need to be catered to, or the global community runs the risk of letting Covid-19 evolve into some new, more dangerous form.

So, one can only hope that the rich countries do their part to help developing nations acquire the vaccine. So far, about 21 million people in Pakistan have received at least one dose. In the US the number is 330 million. The Brookings Institute estimates that the US will have a surplus of over a billion doses by the end of the year even if every citizen receives a booster jab as well. The Duke Global Health Innovation Centre estimates that the European Union will have over 500 million excess doses, and the UK and Canada, 165 million and 156 million, respectively.

Of course, having excess vaccine doses is a point of privilege for the first world countries. While medRxiv conducts studies on how negative reporting of AstraZeneca led to a drop in use of the vaccine in Norway and Sweden – or while the Washington Post highlights how Fox News host Laura Ingraham’s dismissal of the vaccine can lead to Fox’s older audience being misguided – low-income countries are struggling to achieve the level of vaccination needed for a justified sigh of relief.

Dawn has reported that while more than half of all upper and upper-middle income countries have administered enough doses to fully vaccinate at least 20 percent of their populations, only three out of 79 low and lower-middle income countries (as designated by the World Bank) have reached the same level of vaccination. The WHO director has described this inequality in vaccine distribution as “a catastrophic moral failure”. That failure might explain why it makes headlines whenever Pakistan gets a million doses of AstraZeneca (after most of the EU stopped sing it), or two million doses of Moderna.

Both of these came under the COVAX programme, which promised a spirit of togetherness at the start of the pandemic and assured supplies to vaccinate at least 20 percent of all populations. So far, only three of the 79 low -income countries have vaccinated 20 percent of their populations. Not only is Pakistan a long way away from that number, it is only issuing high efficacy vaccines to those travelling abroad. In other words, another layer of privilege has emerged. Vaccine certificates seem to be taking over baby pictures as the most annoying thing to see on one’s social media feed.

Reckless rhetoric and vaccine privilege

Of course, the narrative within Pakistan is not limited to which vaccine one can get. Covid has exacerbated the existing ailments of the country’s economy, partly due to the technological maladaptation to remote working and learning. These cries are just hopeful calls to a return to normal. The media reports when we get a batch of doses, but there is no reported trajectory for when the country may achieve a stable level of herd immunity. The SAPM and head of the NCOC promise that there is no shortage of vaccines, but the website that reports the number of cases doesn’t show how many vaccine doses are left, which might encourage some people to get their jab.

Dr Faisal Sultan went on a Geo show last week to discourage people from getting two different types of vaccines. During the same programme, he warned of the fourth wave and a return of social restrictions, which is par for the course.

Pakistan has adopted some seemingly contradictory narratives in parallel. While the government boasts on the international forum of its excellent handling of the pandemic through smart lockdowns, it tries to instil in its people enough fear of the disease and annoyance of the lockdown to compel them to get vaccinated. All the while, the discussions taking place in the West about the efficacy of vaccines and the tracking of side effects are missing from the discourse here. We don’t mention the fact that Chinese vaccines vary widely in efficacy, with some being only about 55 percent effective. People are only told to get them or they won’t be able to go to restaurants again.

This inequitable look at the vaccines is not based solely on their efficacy. Countries like China and Russia, who had an early rollout to the global community with their own brands of Covid prevention, leveraged it to gain better standing with the countries they donated to. The G7 too, in an act of vaccine diplomacy, have pledged to provide almost a billion doses to poorer countries by the end of 2021.

Meanwhile, Western media campaigns try to discredit Chinese vaccines. These have been described by China’s foreign ministry as a “bias-motivated smear”. European Council President Charles Michel has published a lengthy statement defending the EU’s vaccine strategy, rejecting accusations of vaccine nationalism. In it, he wrote, “We should not let ourselves be misled by China and Russia, both regimes with less desirable values than ours, as they organise highly limited but widely publicised operations to supply vaccines to others.”

Given the high degree of vaccine hesitancy in Pakistan, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that we’ve been caught in the crossfire of confusion. Last week, NCOC head Asad Umar told the media that a single dose of the vaccine would improve Covid resistance four-fold, while getting both doses offers seven-fold immunity to the disease. It’s not quite clear where he got these numbers, or which vaccine specifically he was referring to. No one asked. Perhaps it was because the reporters concluded that it didn’t matter which vaccine was better or worse.

We do want the safest vaccine, most effective vaccine to get on with our lives, but this pandemic is an ongoing battle. Charging in with a low-quality axe instead of a gun might seem foolish, but it is still better than going in empty-handed. Vaccine privilege doesn’t just refer to the specific vaccine one has, but also the fact that even having a chance to get vaccinated puts you head and shoulders above the rest in this race to survive.

The writer is the author of a short stories’   anthology, Encounters, and a screenwriter for the film Parchayee

Reckless rhetoric and vaccine privilege