A Prescription for Vaccine Inequity

by Anna Vogt

When I received my second dose of the COVID-19 vaccines, I was fully expecting the headache and nausea. What I wasn’t prepared for was the guilt. I felt overwhelmed, not of gratitude for health care workers or joy of anticipated hugs, but a sense of guilt over my own privilege. How can I feel good about receiving a vaccine when so many people are dying from lack of access to a resource that is readily available to me?

Last year, while coronavirus vaccines were in initial development stages wealthy nations cut deals directly with vaccine-makers, securing a disproportionately large share of early supply and undermining COVAX, the WHO-backed mechanism to ensure vaccines were disturbed fairly. COVAX was meant to pool vaccine resources and enable them to be accessed by all participating countries, regardless of income level. These purchases by countries, including Canada, diverted vaccines from COVAX and created a two-tier system: those that had made bilateral deals to purchase vaccines or were a vaccine-producing country, and countries that have no choice but to wait to access vaccines through COVAX.

Staff members of MCC partner Lebanese Organization for Studies and Training (LOST) distribute face masks, soap, and other hygiene items to community members of the rural Baalbek-Hermel region of Lebanon on June 16, 2020. (MCC photo/Evangeline Hammond)

Canada currently has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. Unless there are rapid global changes, low- and middle-income countries, including many of the areas where MCC partners work, will not access enough doses to vaccinate more than 20% of their population until 2022. According to figures from Our World in Data only 1.1 per cent of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, compared to 26.9 per cent of the total world population, the majority located in high-income countries.

Despite this already existing stark inequality, some high-income countries are planning booster vaccine shots. Administering boosters to already vaccinated populations will further delay global vaccination efforts.  Additionally, as vaccination numbers stagnate in vaccinated populations, unused vaccines are at risk of being destroyed rather than sent to areas where they are needed most. The vaccine doses that are available in low-income countries may include donations of vaccines that were in excess in the donor country. Because these donated vaccine doses are often near expiration, they need to be administered rapidly, using capacity that may not currently exist in the receiving country.

Anna Mwatha, shown with health promoter Joel Esapaya, is a care group leader who helps families in Mathare, an area of Nairobi, Kenya, know how to better care for their health. Mwatha maintains this hand washing station, one of the 50 hand washing stations provided through an MCC partner, and teaches neighbors how to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (MCC photo/Scott Stoner-Eby, 2020)

As well, even though the vaccines were developed through the public funding of pharmaceutical research, global trade patent technology rules restrict the production of vaccines through intellectual property barriers. Many countries are unable to access the intellectual property and resources required to produce their own vaccine supply. So far, Canada has yet to support a temporary TRIPS waiver proposal at the World Trade Organization.

There is lots to inspire guilt in the global COVID-19 vaccine rollout! The problem with guilt, however, is that it can stand in the way of creating effective change. Feelings are not bad, but what we do with them matters. Guilt and shame can often lead to paralysis, avoidance and inaction.

When we feel overwhelmed by guilt, let’s pause, be curious, and examine if there are other ways to interact with the situation. Vaccinations represent one of the best steps that we can individually take to end COVID-19. By getting vaccinated, and following public health measures, we are actively working to end the pandemic in our community and beyond. We can be grateful for this opportunity and recognize that our feelings of overwhelm are connected to the care that we do hold for others. That’s a gift that can open us up to our global neighbours.

Instead of being paralyzed by guilt, we can ponder about how we may respond out of love, what needs to be done, and what gives us joy. MCC’s advocacy toolkit has some ideas you can use with your community to get started in advocacy work

Working for Vaccine Equity

The good news is that globally, we have enough vaccines and vaccine manufacturing capacities to vaccinate everyone. We have everything we need, right now, to end the pandemic.  

What we are missing is coordinated global political will. While some countries, including Canada, have committed to dose sharing and increasing global health funding, there is still no resourced global vaccination plan.

Ram Udgar Yadav, taking Pramod Kumar Yadav’s temperature, is a public health inspector for Jahada rural municipality in Morang District, Nepal. MCC provided five hospital beds for a quarantine center set up in a secondary school, and personal protective equipment, thermometers, N95 masks and other small medical equipment for the municipality’s health post. (Photo courtesy of Sanjog Luitel, 2020)

Canada can take more of a leadership role in urging the creation of such a vaccination plan that would ensure that all vaccinations, including vaccine boosters, are equitable, regardless of nationality or location. We can strengthen local health systems around the world to ensure that available vaccines can be shipped, stored and administered safely and quickly, and avoid the waste of vaccine doses expiring in countries that have surplus stock. We can also ensure that our own policies around patents, vaccine donations, and global health spending support ending the pandemic globally.

What is the role you can play? Sending a letter to the Canadian government using MCC’s advocacy tool or raising a question during this election in virtual townhalls or on social media, are a couple of great actions, but they are not the only ones. The options are as broad as your creativity. Our advocacy toolkit can be a brainstorming starting point with your community, but here are some additional ideas:

  • Encourage your book club to write letters together or host a meeting with your MP. 
  • Craft an op-ed to your local newspaper with members of your church small group.
  • Raise money with your gardening friends to support MCC health projects or put together health kits.
  • Use our discussion guide for any difficult conversations around vaccines with friends and family.

Let me know where you are engaged and how we can support you! Let’s make joyful and engaged action for equitable global vaccines a key side-effect of being double-dosed.

Anna Vogt is director of MCC Canada’s Peace & Justice Office

To learn more about how you can get involved in peace and justice work and to stay informed, subscribe to our newsletter and visit our website here>.

Banner image caption: A landscape of terraced hills outside of Kola, Kenya. (MCC photo/Matthew Lester, 2019)

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