An Urgent Social Work Call to Action for Global COVID-19 Vaccine Equity, #EndGlobalVaccineApartheid

COVID-19 vaccine doses administered per 100 people

Source: Our World in Data

The Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR) urgently calls social workers in the U.S. and around the globe to raise their voices against the moral failure of global COVID-19 vaccine access and distribution. We must end the COVID-19 global vaccine apartheid.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a crisis of social justice around the globe: even after four million global deaths from the virus, resource-strapped nations are facing severe inequities related to vaccine access and distribution. Sixteen months into the pandemic, high-income countries such as the U.S., U.K., and countries in the E.U. have made great vaccine strides, predicting widespread vaccination coverage by late 2021.1 However, most low-income countries, especially in the Global South, will not receive mass COVID-19 vaccination until at least 2024.1 Specifically, while 3.39 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide—equal to 44 doses for every 100 people in developed nations—most of the poorest countries have yet to give a single dose.3

The unique vulnerabilities borne out of vaccine inequities have been termed “vaccine apartheid,”4 and we’re already seeing heart-wrenching consequences in many resource-poor countries. These nations are entirely reliant on other countries for vaccines and remain largely invisible to the rest of the world. Given the lack of vaccines, many of these countries have enacted extended lockdowns and isolation, alongside familiar advice about hygiene and physical distancing. Unfortunately, their close living quarters often make distancing impossible, while the lockdowns have created economic shocks, mass unemployment, and severe disruptions in food production, leading to the highest increase (40%) in food prices in over a decade.4 Coupled with ongoing war and the climate crisis, the result has been a six-fold increase in people suffering famine-like conditions.4 That means approximately 11 people are dying of hunger and malnutrition every minute, surpassing even the COVID-19 death rate of 7 people every minute.4

The virus does not recognize borders—no one is safe until we all are. Equitable access to vaccines therefore, is the only solution. Without enough vaccines to provide their citizens with full vaccine doses, resource-poor countries are unwittingly in the middle of a large-scale epidemiologic experiment. Incomplete vaccinations can allow escape variants, including the Delta variant, to be produced and bred into deadly new strains. What happens to COVID-19 globally will fundamentally affect health, human rights, and economic interests throughout the developed world. Recent estimates show that vaccine inequality at today’s scale could cost the world as much as $9.2 trillion in economic losses, with rich countries suffering half of that blow.16

Numerous barriers in the vaccine access and distribution mechanisms—securing vaccine ingredients, production constraints, delivery delays, poor medical infrastructure in some countries, and a lack of trained health workers to administer injections—point to widening global health disparities.11 The World Health Organization Director-General recently warned that the world has reached the era of COVID-19 vaccine apartheid, and sharing the vaccines is the best solution. If we do not end this apartheid, there will be many more humanitarian catastrophes across the globe.

We welcome the Biden-Harris administration’s initial efforts to provide 80 million doses of vaccines to the world. We also appreciate President Biden’s support for waiving vaccine patents, increasing COVID-19 vaccine and drug manufacturing, and most recently, his pledge at the G7 summit to donate 500 million doses, which encouraged other G7 leaders to collectively bring vaccine donations to 1 billion.12 However, the world needs about 10 billion vaccines to be urgently delivered, which means we need to find immediate solutions beyond government donations.12

One of the ugliest hurdles contributing to the global vaccine apartheid is the refusal of pharmaceutical corporations to share vaccine science and technology.14 Big Pharma has monopolized vaccine access and has used the pandemic to strengthen its market shares and grow profits, despite its tax funding, at a time when the world has been riven with the dire consequences of the pandemic.

We call for President Biden and the world leaders to support a comprehensive World Trade Organization waiver that goes beyond vaccine patents to all technologies associated with the vaccines, and to compel pharmaceutical companies to share their vaccine technology.12 We unequivocally support the waiver of trade rules that would allow developing countries to make their vaccines so that everyone, no matter where they live, can share the hope of a future free from COVID.

The COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) facility, a mechanism through which most of the donated vaccine doses are made available also needs re-examination. COVAX is run by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Global Vaccine Alliance (Gavi), the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and the UN’s Children Fund (UNICEF). COVAX uses purchases supported by the U.S., U.K., Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the UAE, France, Germany, Italy, Span, Sweden, and Portugal to fund vaccine supplies to low and middle-income countries8. Their goal is to vaccinate 20% of the population of poorer countries—they had originally hoped to administer 2 billion vaccine doses in 2021, more than 25% of the world’s whole population. Unfortunately, so far, they have only reached 38 million doses10. While COVAX will undoubtedly be an essential partner for governments and vaccine manufacturers worldwide, there is also a specific need for immediate, direct bilateral vaccine support in hardest hit countries due to persistent COVAX setbacks and delays9.

High-income countries such as the U.S., which has unused surplus vaccines6 that will expire soon,7 are uniquely positioned to prevent further catastrophes in resource-poor nations and end the vaccine apartheid across the globe. Ending the pandemic requires a political commitment. It will also take a global effort of advocacy and engagement. We call on social workers in the U.S. and across the world to action:

  1. LEARN about the growing global vaccine inequity problem. (Beginning Resource List)
  1. ADVOCATE for the U.S. Government to #EndGlobalVaccineApartheid.
  • Make a call: Tell your elected officials to demand the White House’s urgent attention to the widening global COVID-19 vaccine apartheid (download)
  • Write a letter or email: Write letters to Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee and to your own elected officials (download)
  • Tweet #EndGlobalVaccineApartheid to your elected leaders, officials, and key Biden-Harris administration officials overseeing the U.S. COVID-19 response (see Twitter handles).
  1. JOIN the social work movement to #EndGlobalVaccineApartheid.
  • Participate in discussions related to global COVID-19 vaccine equity and take action now.
  • Use #EndGlobalVaccineApartheid on social media to join the social work movement for global COVD-19 vaccine equity.
  • Support organizations and campaigns working towards global COVID-19 vaccine equity (The People’s Vaccine Alliance; Justice is Global)
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