Currently, U.S. officials are considering expanding eligibility for the monkeypox vaccine. Yet, elsewhere, people are still struggling to get access to the COVID-19 vaccine. In many low-income countries, less than half of the population is fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus – sometimes far fewer.
In Haiti, for instance, only 1.4 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, and only 2.2 percent have received a single dose. Currently, there are ten other countries wherein 10 percent or less of the public has received a full course of the vaccine. In those countries, COVID-19 is far from over.
As someone who has studied the racial and cross-national impacts of COVID-19 since its start, I know quite well that this disparity reflects, among many things, the inequalities and injustices in vaccine distribution worldwide. Indeed, by the end of 2020, the U.S., U.K., and Australia had already preordered enough vaccine doses to inoculate their entire populations twice over. Canada preordered enough to vaccinate 500 percent of its population.
Not only did these countries purchase more doses than needed, but they also took additional steps to safeguard their interests. For instance, the U.K., European Union, and initially the U.S. vehemently resisted bids by India and South Africa to suspend patents and intellectual property rights related to the production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. This waiver would have made it easier for poorer countries to affordably produce their own vaccine doses.
Wealthy countries objected. They argued that the waiver would stymie any future vaccine development that may be needed if new vaccine-resistant variants emerged. While the U.S. eventually changed course and began supporting the waiver, they nevertheless continued to enforce export bans on raw materials necessary for global vaccine production. Instead of a public good, this vaccine nationalism transformed a life-saving treatment into another symbol of the great divide between the haves and the have-nots – so much for COVID-19 being the “great equalizer.”
I emphasize this disparity to highlight that the sense of comfort and relief many U.S.-Americans feel is predicated on the continual suffering of millions of people worldwide. And to be clear, there are still vaccine disparities within the U.S.; most notably, rural areas continue to report fewer vaccination rates as well as higher incidence and mortality rates compared to urban communities.
Unlike many of us, people in low-income countries lack the luxury of being able to decide that they are “over” the pandemic because social distancing is inconvenient, and masks are uncomfortable. They cannot simply shift focus to the next “big” thing.
Yet, our comfort and their pain are interconnected. While we rush to leave COVID-19 behind us, it continues to threaten the health and livelihoods of the global underclass. Indeed, the more complacent we become, the more we become an ideal place for new variants to emerge – variants that will inevitably make their way overseas. At the same time, this also facilitates the spread of other infectious diseases like monkeypox.
As former U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello wrote, “a virus doesn’t require a passport.” Pandemics are fundamentally global events, but far too many of us are being driven by our basest individualistic desires. We must recognize our privilege, and in doing so, we must work harder to provide relief to other countries.
This can take many forms – from raising awareness to participating in new vaccine trials to donating to medical and humanitarian organizations actively engaged in those regions (e.g., Doctors Without Borders) to protesting that the Biden Administration and Congress contribute more funding to COVAX, the World Health Organization’s global initiative to address vaccine disparities in poor countries. At a minimum, however, it requires that we continue to take the pandemic seriously. COVID-19 is not over, but we can change that.
Jordan Liz is a philosophy assistant professor.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com