Rich countries control about 80 percent of vaccines, while poorest countries receive less than 5 percent. There is a large gap in immunization coverage. Almost 70 percent of people in high-income countries have been fully immunized, compared to about 10 percent in low-income countries.
There has not been a progressive political decision on the part of the rich countries regarding the distribution of vaccines. US President Joe Biden spoke of “patent waiver” days after taking office; unfortunately, the idea was not pursued and, in addition, other rich countries did not support the idea.
This does not mean that they did not understand the inequality in the distribution of vaccines. They do. However, they see the idea of “patent waiver” as detrimental to the spirit of capitalism. Innovation and invention are the foundation of the market economy, and the market economy will not thrive if there is a patent waiver.
So they instead offered what they called a “vaccine donation” to the poorest countries. In other words, they still see vaccine distribution as a charity or a corporate social responsibility (CSR). Equality is not about charity or CSR. It is a question of rights; it is a human right.
Equality requires political determination and the recognition that we are all equal, no matter where we come from.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all human beings, regardless of nationality, and we keep saying that no one will be safe until everyone is safe. We are in the same boat. But rich countries are simply unwilling to share the vaccine with poorer countries.
Legally, there is a way to overcome the inequality in vaccine distribution by applying what is called “compulsory licensing”. In the name of public health, pharmaceutical companies must license their patents to poorer countries, not in commercial terms, so that vaccine manufacturing can be massively scaled up to meet popular demands in an affordable manner.
But again, it appears there is no willingness to license the patents, even though millions of people have already died and been infected. To do justice, I must mention that there is indeed a mechanism under the COVAX facility, but it is far from sufficient. The COVAX facility does not cover all affected countries. We need an additional mechanism to secure and accelerate the whole process of vaccine distribution between and within countries.
Vaccines must be transported to conflict zones, remote places and social enclaves. We don’t want to regret our failure when we see people die simply because they don’t have access to vaccines.
Another issue concerns climate funds. The Paris agreement has brought us to a point where reducing carbon emissions, deforestation and reclamation of degraded land is the only way forward. Every country must do its part to avert a climate catastrophe, and for this reason, rich countries have pledged to help poor countries meet their emissions reduction and deforestation targets.
Rich countries have already pledged $ 100 billion a year to help poor countries meet their emissions reduction and deforestation target. Ironically, the money never came.
At the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland last month, again, the same promise was made. It remains to be seen whether the promises will ever materialize.
If somehow the promises don’t come true, you could end up having a climate calamity, and we will suffer greatly. Rich countries may be able to mitigate the extreme heat with their money and technology, but poor countries will sweat inside and outside their homes. Many coastal towns will fall, unable to survive. The question is: where is the equality here?
People, especially the poor, have been excluded from the development process. In many countries, the political elite are wedded to business enterprises. The point is that the gap between the rich and the poor has grown wider and wider, and social security or social safety nets have become insufficient to deal with this protracted injustice.
—The Jakarta Post / Asia News Network
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Todung Mulya Lubis is Indonesian Ambassador to Norway and Iceland. The article was based on his presentation at the Bali Democracy Forum on December 9.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of the Asia News Network, an alliance of 22 regional media titles.
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