Long gone are the days when the prospect of a vaccine seemed like the miracle antidote to solve the global crisis that has been, and still is, coronavirus. Instead, just when things seemed as though they couldn’t get any more complicated, a new kind of problem has presented itself: vaccine politics.
In January 2020, just as Coronavirus was beginning to wash up onto the shores of Europe, the race to create a brand-new vaccine was on after Chinese academics made the genetic sequence of the virus public.
Over 170 teams of researchers took up the challenge to develop a vaccine in record time, and by 2nd December, the UK approved its first vaccine, Pfizer-BioNTech, closely followed by Oxford-AstraZeneca. These two dose vaccinations began being rolled out in the UK at the start of the year, and the Moderna vaccine is being added to the arsenal this month. But now, under-30s being offered an alternative to AstraZeneca vaccines is a stark reminder that we’re not out of the woods yet.
In saying this, things in the UK are looking a lot less bleak than they have for a long time. In the last week of March, outdoor sports facilities opened, and up to 6 people are now allowed to meet outside. The 12th of April brought about the end of shielding, the reopening of non-essential shops, and pubs serving alcohol without a curfew.
But the situation in other parts of Europe isn’t looking quite so sunny. With cases rising across France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Turkey, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has warned that the UK will feel the effects of the third wave sweeping across the European continent.
Whilst our vaccination programme is going well so far, a danger lies in the likelihood of new variants cropping up from these locations where the virus is still tearing through the population. We have the technology to adapt a vaccine against one variant to maintain its effectiveness against similar emerging variants, but not always against highly divergent variants.
This means that as long as the virus continues to circulate through the population, there will be risks of such variants, and, even if the entire UK is vaccinated, a variant that evades the vaccine could render this irrelevant. It’s a frightening thought, and one that will hopefully never come to fruition. But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
While the creation of a vaccine was portrayed as a global effort, this camaraderie has since disintegrated into a nationalist agenda, with governments placing their own countries above all else. I understand the reasoning behind the want (and the need) to get your own country back on its feet, but I don’t agree with the way it’s been done.
Coronavirus has made the borders between one country and the next apparent in a manner unlike before. Different countries have responded in incredibly different ways, with lockdowns varying in length and severity; governments forming their own tactics and advice; and different citizens following or flouting the rules.
Different countries will always need to operate in various ways, but when faced with an identical threat, the way in which to respond has proved incredibly divisive.
We’ve even seen this within the UK itself, with England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all taking distinct routes in and out of lockdowns. The tier system, which was first implemented by England in October, also added fuel to the fire of the North-South divide, with people living in the North facing much tougher restriction than those in the South. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham accused the Government of treating the North with “contempt”, with businesses suffering after new restrictions forced them to close, while London remained open in tier 2.
And now, these global divisions are becoming even more apparent through the hugely unequal distribution of vaccines. It’s been predicted that it will take until 2024 for most poorer nations to achieve mass immunisation due to the hugely unequal distribution of vaccines.
It’s creating what UNAIDS Executive Director Winnie Byanyima is calling a ‘vaccine apartheid’, as pharmaceutical corporations’ unjustifiably high prices block access to doses for many low and middle-income countries.
AstraZeneca has pledged to supply the vaccine on a not-for-profit basis, charging $4.30 to $10 for two doses, until the pandemic draws to a close. But if annual vaccinations are going to be required for the rest of the foreseeable future, how does this help the countries who are struggling to even get hold of them now?
South Africa had to pay more than double what the EU paid for AstraZeneca for a number of doses way off what they actually require, while countries like the UK and the US who had the money to invest into the vaccine development were pushed to the front of the queue. Boris Johnson has even boasted that the success of the UK’s vaccine programme has been down to “capitalism” and “greed”.
Money seems to be the determining factor in deciding what countries get first dibs.
In a world where wealth guarantees your health, this foreshadows a troubling future for our NHS as it becomes increasingly privatised. It has placed a price onto the lives of the global population, deeming who is and who isn’t worthy simply by how much money they have.
This is by no means a new phenomenon. It further echoes the elitism that we see within our own societies, which enables the rich and oppresses the poor, and the long history of exploitation that countries like the UK built itself on in the first place.
But the unequal distributions of vaccines have now become an extension of this. Nations who have yet to vaccinate a single person are faced with no choice but to continue curbing the spread through lockdowns and curfews, further damaging their economies, whilst already wealthy nations who are well into their vaccination programme are starting to get back on their feet.
My point is that the current tactics of self-preservation that have been used in response to coronavirus across the globe has driven countries apart. In a situation where the world should’ve been banding together, the pandemic has further exposed the cracks within our individual societies as well as our international relations.
This has nourished a new sense of nationalism: justifying the tightening of borders, fuelling racial discrimination, with anti-Asian hate crimes on the increase, and encouraging an ever-increasing individualism that will keep us in this pandemic for a whole lot longer.