Vials containing Covid-19 vaccines stored in a fridge at a vaccination centre. File picture: Dinendra Haria / SOPA Images/Sipa USA
Vials containing Covid-19 vaccines stored in a fridge at a vaccination centre. File picture: Dinendra Haria / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

Vaccine hoarding: a crime against humanity

By Kumi Naidoo Time of article published May 23, 2021

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For a species that prides itself on its superior intellect and triumph over nature, humans have shown themselves to be remarkably fragile.

A humble virus, one of nature’s most primitive biological entities – a form so pared-down, in fact, that scientists debate whether to classify it as “life” – has brought us to our knees. The virus evolves faster than we could ever dream, outpacing us and leaving chaos in its wake.

Scientists have produced several vaccines against Covid-19 in record time.

Sadly, the economic system that puts profit far above people and planet has ensured that even though, in theory, we have the ability to stop the pandemic, in practice, we cannot.

Vaccines have been patented, preserving the profits of pharmaceutical companies at the expense of the lives and health of human beings across the world. While “casino capitalism” flourishes, most people are left without choices, and without access to life-saving innoculations.

The governments of some rich countries immorally hoard stockpiles of vaccines, while poor countries have scant supplies, with even those often being significantly less effective. The economic “herd immunity” of the rich countries is pushing poor countries into a perilous and heartbreaking position. This approach by some governments constitutes a crime against humanity and history will judge the perpetrators harshly.

Due to the prevalence of economic apartheid, access to vaccines is woefully unequal at global level. Equitable access and distribution is needed now. And right now. One solution is to catalyse global action that works in everyone’s interests. The World Trade Organization needs to waive its intellectual property protections on the vaccine immediately. Why is this something for which we must beg?

According to Doctors Without Borders (MSF), as of March, more than 174 million people globally have been vaccinated, but a minuscule number in Africa.

As MSF’s Southern Africa Medical Unit puts it: “Truly equitable vaccine allocation and distribution should mean that countries are able to acquire not just any vaccines but the right vaccines – adapted to the presence of new variants and to contextual factors – at the right time and at the right price.

“Unless the leaders of wealthy governments and pharmaceutical corporations support this, and quickly, we risk generating new pandemics of vaccine-resistant Covid19. Travel bans will not stop this but equity and solidarity might.”

For leaders of all countries, this has been a major challenge. As citizens, we need to acknowledge that none of us would have wished leadership roles during this time on our worst enemies.

South Africa started off relatively well in the implementation of the lockdown despite having some troubling human rights violations, but did manage to contain the risk the virus posed. I, like many others in the early days of the pandemic, acknowledged the efforts our government had made and wished them well, and continue to do so.

However, it is a sad reflection on us, as a country, that we have fared so badly with the vaccine roll-out programme.

The ANC is distracted by internal power struggles. The scale of corruption that we have seen and continue to see in our country would be unacceptable in normal times. Covid-19 makes the crimes a million times more painful and unacceptable.

We need our leaders’ attention focused on the pandemic and its impact, particularly on the economic reality for most of our people. This is difficult for me to say, as someone who has given a substantial part of my life in service to the ANC as a liberation movement. What does this mean for ordinary folks?

Some say that the rich and poor are in the same boat, but in reality we are forced into segregated boats, some leaking badly, while others are in private yachts. The impact of the lockdown on the poor has been the most devastating, especially for those having to earn a daily wage through informal work. It is incredibly sad that resources meant to support those most affected have not been reaching them in its entirety, in some cases being stolen by opportunistic politically connected persons looking to benefit from the pandemic.

Uncertainties fuelled by poor management, lack of transparency, corruption and a lack of access have created the expectation of being vaccinated in 2023 only. What breaks my heart is that while we celebrated essential workers – those making sure we could survive the pandemic with food to eat, basic supplies, the poor, low-paid workers – are suddenly no longer considered essential the moment vaccines become available.

A depressing reflection on how power is manipulated, allowing the poor to be ignored by the government and the rich.

There is something that poses an even greater risk than Covid-19 and enables its spread: the all-encompassing malignancy of a broken economic system, impacting on all the ways humans choose to organise themselves – most notably, our health, energy and food systems.

We must also inoculate ourselves against the most dangerous of all diseases: the highly contagious and sinister Affluenza, an illness where we come to believe that a meaningful, dignified life comes with the acquisition of ever-increasing money and wealth – an affliction that seems to affect many, if not most of those in political office.

Let us be clear: affluence will not protect us from Covid-19, which continues to produce new, deadlier variants while spreading unchecked among large sections of the global population. That is why we must ensure access to vaccines for everyone.

Poor countries are struggling; they are being sidelined as they plead for aid. It is obviously in humanity’s best interest to vaccinate the most vulnerable. We have the ability and determination to overcome this, but we need help, and time is running out. Every time the virus copies itself, there is a risk of a variant.

We must work together before we create another, even more dangerous, situation. And we need to understand that no one is safe until everyone is safe.

* Kumi Naidoo was the global head of Greenpeace and Amnesty International. He is a global ambassador of Africans Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL and Independent Media.

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