South Africa flag vaccine
A vial, syringe and small toy figures are seen in front of displayed South Africa flag in this illustration Image Credit: Reuters

The rapid success of the COVID-19 vaccination programme across much of the developed world is showing us hope that the end of the pandemic may possibly be not that far away. With several parts of continental Europe now opening up, it raises hope for the rest of the world.

Europe, replete in its success of mass vaccinations, once again opening up. The streets of Paris and London are again swarming with revellers. The continent is gearing up for what some call ‘revenge tourism’, where people will try to make up for the lost year in travel. While checks and balances remain in place, they are nowhere near the lockdown levels of last year.

However, like in the case of general world economic indicators, the rate of the vaccination programme also reflects the gross inequality prevalent across the globe. According to statistics from Our World in Data, as a whole only 12.81 per cent of the world population have been vaccinated.

Breaking the figures up, while the European Union as a bloc has achieved close to 42 per cent vaccination and the US around 48 per cent, the figures for Africa stands at 1.43 per cent. Asia does slightly better at 9.49 per cent.

Access to inoculations

For all the noble thoughts espoused by the COVAX initiative aiming for a fair and equitable distribution of vaccines around the world, the poorer countries remain far behind in terms of access to inoculations. And as the third wave of the pandemic rages across the world, the inequalities that we see in our lives every day are borne out in the pandemic response as well.

The developed countries, through their social security net, can afford to keep those shops and factories locked, doling out allowances to ensure no one goes hungry. Also, with their deep pockets, they have managed to garner vast stocks of vaccines, as a result of which they have been able to inoculate major portions of their populations. This automatically has resulted in lowering infections and the consequent reopening of these countries.

The underdeveloped countries have had no such luxury. Dependent largely on the doles from the developed West and initiatives like COVAX, the pace of vaccination in most of these nations is painfully slow. They neither have the infrastructure nor the resources necessary for this purpose.

They are also in no position to continue lockdowns indefinitely, as government funds are grossly insufficient in most of these countries to allow the people to sit and get a packet of money at home without doing any work.

The already creaking health care facilities are thus getting ever more burdened with rising numbers of cases.

A precarious situation

And as the planet is into its second year of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, troubling economic data show how precarious the situation is becoming for the billions of poor. A recent UN report, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, shows that around a tenth of the global population — up to 811 million people — were undernourished last year.

The report is jointly published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

According to the report, more than half of all undernourished people (418 million) live in Asia; more than a third (282 million) in Africa; and a smaller proportion (60 million) in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the sharpest rise in hunger was in Africa, where the estimated prevalence of undernourishment — at 21 per cent of the population — is more than double that of any other region.

The data is clear proof that as most of the countries are not in a position to feed their people sitting at home, lockdowns have resulted in millions losing their means of livelihood.

Steep rise in global food prices

In addition, climate change and a spike in inflation rates have caused a steep rise in global food prices. Thus the poor countries, especially those that are net importers of food, are finding it even more difficult to procure supplies. Indeed, some are even saying that famines may arise if the situation is not addressed soon. As a result, many more are likely to die of malnutrition than of the virus itself.

How do we address this global scourge?

It is not merely enough to ensure equitable vaccine distribution. That will be a welcome first step, but we need to go much further. The world needs to come together to build the infrastructure in these countries so that they can fend for themselves.

Unholy alliances between shady corporates and corrupt politicians is one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Blacklisting such organisations from doing business may force a turnaround.

Our leaders need to develop a plan to ensure that no one is left behind in the journey of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Time is of the essence. Or else, millions of lives are at stake, and not just due to the virus.