COVID-19 vaccine apartheid: WHO chief calls for moratorium on booster shots

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says a moratorium on COVID-19 booster shots for wealthy countries “until at least the end of September" would "enable at least 10% of the population of every country to be vaccinated”.
Photo credit: Jess Hurd/Global Justice Now via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

BY OBERT MADONDO@Obiemad | AUG. 5, 2021

The director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for a moratorium on booster shots of life-saving COVID-19 vaccines for wealthy western countries “until at least the end of September” to boost global vaccine equity.

Addressing the media on Wednesday, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a moratorium on booster shots for high-and upper-middle income countries implemented between now and the end of September would “enable at least 10% of the population of every country to be vaccinated” against the coronavirus. The WHO chief also lamented the fact that wealthy countries of the West were now rushing to administer booster shots to their white-majority populations “while hundreds of millions of people” in countries and communities of the so-called the Global South, which have BIPOC (Black people, Indigenous people, People of Color) majorities, “are still waiting for their first dose”.

Furthermore, the WHO director general is also warning wealthy countries, which “have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it,” against using the Delta variant as an excuse for rolling out booster shots “while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected” in the Global South.

Delta variant

First detected in India in late 2020, Delta is the “most transmissible” of the eleven variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, identified by the WHO so far. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially labeled Delta a “variant of concern” in mid-April. The CDC describes a variant of concern as “a variant for which there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (e.g., increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures.”

The WHO chief said:

I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the Delta variant. But we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it, while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected.

In his June 25, 2021, media briefing, the WHO chief warned that the Delta variant, which had then “been identified in at least 85 countries,” was “spreading rapidly among unvaccinated populations” in the Global South. He said:

As some countries ease public health and social measures, we are starting to see increases in transmission around the world. More cases means more hospitalizations, further stretching health workers and health systems, which increases the risk of death.

As we have said, new variants are expected and will continue to be reported – that’s what viruses do, they evolve – but we can prevent the emergence of variants by preventing transmission.

It’s quite simple: more transmission, more variants. Less transmission, less variants.

That makes it even more urgent that we use all the tools at our disposal to prevent transmission: the tailored and consistent use of public health and social measures, in combination with equitable vaccination.

This is why WHO has been saying for at least a year that vaccines must be distributed equitably, to protect health workers and the most vulnerable.

Harriet Nayiga

In his media briefing, Ghebreyesus shared the personal story of Harriet Nayiga, a midwife from Uganda who joined the WHO’s press conference in January “to talk about her experience as a health worker during the pandemic.” According to the WHO Director General:

While vaccines were being rolled out in the wealthiest countries, Harriet was one of many health workers in Africa and around the world who was still waiting for her turn to be vaccinated. At the time, Uganda – like much of Africa – had relatively few cases of COVID-19. But starting in May of this year, Uganda experienced a surge in cases and deaths, as variants tore through a largely unvaccinated population.

Prior to Ghebreyesus’ Aug. 4, 2021, media briefing, Nayiga, the Ugandan midwife, had shared the news of her first shot of a life-saving COVID-19 vaccine, as well as the “tough” situation for Ugandans in the midst of an acute vaccine shortage and “spreading” virus:

I got my first shot and am yet to receive the second. The situation was tough for the last two months, where over 2000 people died so far, including health workers. We hope that the vaccines will be able to reach different parts of the country and hope that people will be responsible enough and go for vaccination. Otherwise, COVID is spreading, though people are now moving to work in order to earn a living, since the majority depend on hand to mouth.

As per the WHO director general’s media briefing:

This is the reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world – they cannot afford to stay at home. They work to eat.

These populations need vaccines urgently, especially health workers, older people and other vulnerable groups.

And yet even while hundreds of millions of people are still waiting for their first dose, some rich countries are moving towards booster doses.

Earlier today, Reuters reported that Germany, France and Israel would forge ahead with their “plans to administer COVID-19 vaccine boosters,” ignoring the WHO director general’s plea “to hold off until more people are vaccinated around the world.”

COVID-19 vaccine apartheid

Jonathan Shaffer, a co-founder of Right to Health Action and Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Boston University, recently described COVID-19 vaccine apartheid as “the injustice built into the current and persistent inequalities in vaccine access. The map of current Covid-19 vaccine access overlays neatly onto much older maps of colonial conquest.”

Data from the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom shows that, as of Aug. 5, most wealthy, white-majority countries of the West had administered tens and even hundreds of millions of vaccine doses. Meanwhile, “hundreds of millions of people” in Africa and almost every BIPOC-majority country or community in the Global South were “still waiting for their first dose” of a life-saving COVID-19 vaccine.

For example, according to the data, the United Kingdom and US had administered 86 million and 348 million COVID-19 doses, respectively. Canada had administered over 50 million doses. By comparison, The Democratic Republic of Congo, a Black-majority African country with a population of 105 million, had administered only 86,000 doses. Haiti, an impoverished Black-majority country situated in the Caribbean, not far from the U.S. and Canada, had administered a paltry 12,641 doses.

As of mid-June, “less than 1%” of Africa’s current population of 1.37 billion people had been vaccinated. As of the end of June, Africa, the world’s second-largest and second-most populous continent, had received only about 2% of one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses administered worldwide.

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The Our World in Data project showed that as of Aug. 5, 2021, Africa had administered just over 74 million COVID-19 doses. By comparison, the European Union had administered over 483 million doses.

Billions of people in the BIPOC-majority Global South “are being left behind” and now see safe and effective life-saving COVID-19 vaccines “as a mirage or a privilege for the developed world,” according to UN independent human rights experts. And, back in April, former British prime minister Gordon Brown argued that wealthy G7 countries “can afford to pay 60% of the costs of vaccinating developing countries,” adding:

Immunising the west but only a fraction of the developing world is already fueling allegations of ‘vaccine apartheid’ and will leave Covid-19 spreading, mutating and threatening the lives and livelihoods of us all for years to come.

Below is the full text of the WHO Director General Ghebreyesus’ Aug. 2021, media briefing:

Good morning, good afternoon and good evening.

In January of this year, a midwife from Uganda called Harriet Nayiga joined our press conference to talk about her experience as a health worker during the pandemic.

While vaccines were being rolled out in the wealthiest countries, Harriet was one of many health workers in Africa and around the world who was still waiting for her turn to be vaccinated.

At the time, Uganda – like much of Africa – had relatively few cases of COVID-19.

But starting in May of this year, Uganda experienced a surge in cases and deaths, as variants tore through a largely unvaccinated population.

This morning, Harriet sent us this email:

“I got my first shot and am yet to receive the second.

“The situation was tough for the last two months, where over 2000 people died so far, including health workers.

“We hope that the vaccines will be able to reach different parts of the country and hope that people will be responsible enough and go for vaccination.

“Otherwise, COVID is spreading, though people are now moving to work in order to earn a living, since the majority depend on hand to mouth.”

This is the reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world – they cannot afford to stay at home. They work to eat.

These populations need vaccines urgently, especially health workers, older people and other vulnerable groups.

And yet even while hundreds of millions of people are still waiting for their first dose, some rich countries are moving towards booster doses.

So far, more than 4 billion vaccine doses have been administered globally. More than 80% have gone to high- and upper-middle income countries, even though they account for less than half of the world’s population.

I understand the concern of all governments to protect their people from the Delta variant.

But we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it, while the world’s most vulnerable people remain unprotected.

In late May, I called for global support for a “sprint to September”, to enable every country to vaccinate at least 10% of its population by the end of September.

We’re now more than halfway to that target date, but we’re not on track.

When I issued that challenge in May, high-income countries had administered around 50 doses for every 100 people. Since then, that number has doubled. High-income countries have now administered almost 100 doses for every 100 people.

Meanwhile, low-income countries have only been able to administer 1.5 doses for every 100 people, due to lack of supply.

We need an urgent reversal, from the majority of vaccines going to high-income countries, to the majority going to low-income countries.

Accordingly, WHO is calling for a moratorium on boosters until at least the end of September, to enable at least 10% of the population of every country to be vaccinated.

To make that happen, we need everyone’s cooperation, especially the handful of countries and companies that control the global supply of vaccines.

The G20 has a vital leadership role to play, as the countries that are the biggest producers, the biggest consumers and the biggest donors of COVID-19 vaccines.

It’s no understatement to say that the course of the pandemic depends on the leadership of the G20 countries.

One month from now, the G20 health ministers will meet, ahead of the G20 summit in October. I call on them to make concrete commitments to support WHO’s global vaccination targets.

We call on vaccine producers to prioritize COVAX.

And we call on everyone with influence – Olympic athletes, investors, business leaders, faith leaders, and every individual in their own family and community – to support our call for a moratorium on booster shots until at least the end of September.

At the same time, we must all remember that vaccines are not the only tool. Indeed, there is no single tool that will defeat this pandemic.

We can only defeat it with a comprehensive approach of vaccines in combination with the proven public health and social measures that we know work.

Tarik, back to you.

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Obert Madondo
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, activist, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. Obert is the founder and editor of The Canadian Progressive and The Zimbabwean Progressive, both of which are independent political blogs dedicated to producing fearless, progressive, adversarial, unapologetic, and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad
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