By Sir Ronald Sanders
Developing countries, including the member states of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) are being left behind in the rollout of vaccinations against COVID-19 that is now underway in rich countries.
The most recent information from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) is that 36 countries in the Americas, including the 14 independent CARICOM States, have been notified that, between the end of February and August 2021, they will be receiving only a small percentage of AstraZeneca vaccines that they ordered and for which, in some cases, they have already paid under a World Health Organization (WHO) arrangement called COVAX.
According to a COVAX statement, it is estimated that around 35.3 million doses will be arriving in the Americas in this first stage – a drop in the bucket or just 5 percent of the 630 million people of the area from Mexico to Argentina, including the Caribbean.
There is also no indication of what happens after August, but what is clear is that these countries will not get enough vaccines to inoculate their populations in 2021.
For developing countries taken collectively, the situation is even more dire. Reports indicate that 90 percent of persons in developing countries will not have access to any COVID vaccine in 2021, and that rich nations, representing less than 15 percent of the world’s population, have already purchased more than 50 percent of the most promising vaccines.
PAHO Director, Carissa Etienne, has made it clear that “with more than 45 million confirmed cases and more than one million deaths, countries and territories throughout the Americas, particularly the poorest among them, are experiencing an unprecedented health, economic and social crisis.”
This is a matter that demands an urgent response from all developed countries acting in concert.
There has been no such collective response to date, and no obvious machinery for doing so. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which once spoke effectively for developing states, is now a shadow of the powerful body it was at its formation under the leadership of India, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia and Yugoslavia.
The global south is voiceless as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to infect and kill millions of people and decimate economies and livelihoods.
There is also no unified response from the 36 countries of the Americas, including CARICOM, although they collectively need to immunize approximately 500 million people to control the pandemic – and they need to do so fast.
A research study, sponsored by the US National Bureau of Economic Research in Massachusetts, states that: “In monopolizing the supply of vaccines against COVID-19, wealthy nations are threatening more than a humanitarian catastrophe: The resulting economic devastation will hit affluent countries nearly as hard as those in the developing world”. The study, entitled “The Economic Case for Global Vaccinations: An Epidemiological Model with International Production Networks”, also points out that even if wealthy countries are fully vaccinated by the middle of this year, and poor countries remain largely shut out, “the global economy would suffer losses exceeding $9 trillion, a sum greater than the annual output of Japan and Germany combined”.
Developed countries are, therefore, not immune from the consequences of failing to help inoculate developing countries. This is now the world’s problem, and the world should be tackling it. However, that is not happening. Instead, we have seen a rush to “COVID nationalism”, with the richest and most powerful nations focusing only on themselves. If this continues, there will be a terrible price to pay.
At a meeting of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) on January 27, after a presentation by PAHO officials on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which I described as “chilling”, I called for action in all international fora, including the OAS, to tackle the problem of neglected countries urgently.
Encouraged by CARICOM ambassadorial colleagues in Washington, Antigua and Barbuda’s delegation to the OAS drafted a Resolution on the urgency of delivering vaccines to the 36 developing countries in the Americas, including CARICOM States. That draft resolution, once agreed by CARICOM countries, will be put to the OAS for adoption.
The resolution will, among other things, request those member states with the capacity to do so, to take actions to facilitate equitable distribution of vaccines globally and in the Hemisphere. It will also encourage the International Financial Institutions to provide low-cost funding to all developing countries, particularly small states, to help address the subjugation of the coronavirus and the rebuilding of economies.
This is not a matter for the OAS only. CARICOM states, in their own interests, should be raising their voices everywhere, including at the Summit of the Americas, scheduled for this year with the participation of the US president and the prime minister of Canada.
No meeting of the leaders of the Americas, convened in this epoch of the COVID-19 pandemic with all the evidence of the millions of lives it has taken, and the decimation of economies and the livelihoods of people, can responsibly ignore its far-reaching consequences.
Leaders of the Americas have to give their peoples concrete plans to contain the virus and to restore vibrant economies. They have to give their nations good reasons for optimism and confidence that their lives can be made better. To do so, they must also commit to helping their neighbours. For no one is safe until all are safe.
CARICOM countries must also act collectively to argue for their joint survival.