Earlier this month, Namibia’s President Hage Geingob was invited to attend the WHO weekly press conference to discuss World Health Day. The idea was that he should explain to hundreds of reporters from around the world what was happening to the COVID vaccination effort in his South African nation.
In what has become all too common during the pandemic, the video link has been unstable. The Namibian President kept freezing on the screen. The audio would become muffled and unintelligible, or the sound would drop out completely.
Then there were bursts of clarity at times. “It’s COVID Apartheid!” Shouted Geingob.
“We have already made our deposit!” He insisted. It became clear that the president was using his time not to speak to the press but to harass WHO officials in the room in order to finally dispense the vaccine doses he had already paid for through COVAX. This is the WHO-led initiative for the procurement and fair distribution of vaccines, especially for low and middle income countries.
“We made the prepayment, but there is this exclusion. COVID apartheid now prevails,” he said, comparing the inequality in global access to vaccines to the South African apartheid system, which divided the country along racial lines and millions of black Africans held captive in poverty.
“We haven’t received any so far,” he said of the vaccines that Namibia has ordered. The few hundred doses that Namibia was able to secure are “only because our good friends, China and India, gave us vaccines”.
To date, Namibia has delivered fewer than 3,000 COVID shocks. This is a fraction of what a US mass vaccination site like the Javits Center in New York City runs on a daily basis.
In the United States, nearly 40% of the population has now received at least one dose of vaccine. In Namibia, less than 0.1% of the population was shot.
The US has had more COVID gun vaccinations than any other country in the world. Ingrid Katz, the assistant faculty director at Harvard Global Health Institute, says the US is now “somewhat diluted” in the global vaccination effort. “There are a few other nations out there that are with us.” Worldwide only 2.3% of the world’s population are fully vaccinated. In Africa it is less than 1%.
“You look at the data globally,” says Katz. “You will see that about 75% of the vaccines have been sold in only 10 countries worldwide. There are massive, massive inequalities.”
In the countries that have succeeded in getting large numbers of people vaccinated – the US, UK, and India – there happen to be manufacturing facilities that make the vaccines. They also had export restrictions, which meant their own citizens were on the front lines to get vaccinated. Major regional actors like South Africa have only fully vaccinated half of 1% of their population. In the Philippines it is less than 0.1%. Even wealthy nations in Europe like Germany, Spain, Italy, and France haven’t reached more than 7% yet.
Katz says this is not a way to tackle a global health crisis. “If we assume that it’s okay to vaccinate only American citizens and nobody else in the world, we’re going to be in big trouble,” she says.
Katz had a newspaper in it New England Journal of Medicine. In it, she and her colleagues calculated that based on the vaccination rates taking place worldwide at the end of March, it would take 4.6 years for the planet to achieve herd immunity to SARS-CoV-2. Since then, the number of weekly recordings has increased.
“But we’re still talking for years. It won’t be months,” she says, until this pandemic is under control. And if the virus continues to spread and mutate for a few more years, there’s a good chance a variant will emerge that the vaccines don’t protect against.
At this point in time, the US would be in no better position than a country that had not vaccinated at all.
Getting the whole world vaccinated “is an investment in our own interests,” says Katz.