Most of us started of 2021, hoping that COVID-19 vaccines become widely and cheaply, if not freely, available globally. But we are quickly learning that something akin to COVID apartheid exists. The citizens of rich, northern countries will receive the vaccine first (as The New York Times projects: “these countries can expect, at best, to have about 50 percent of their populations covered by the end of 2021”) and it will take a while, including up to a year, for people in the Global South or what used to be known as developing countries or the Third World, to get access to the vaccine.
As Achal Prabhala, coordinator of AccessIBSA, a tricontinental project set up to expand access and speed up the discovery of new drugs in the developing world, specifically India, Brazil and South Africa, wrote in The New York Times in December 2020, what adds insult to injury is that while the vaccines were developed thanks wholly or partly to taxpayer money and they essentially belong to the people, “… yet the people are about to pay for them again, and with little prospect of getting as many as they need fast enough.”
It is also in rich countries’ interests, as Achal wrote in that same article, to “negotiate with their pharmaceutical companies for cheaper drugs and vaccines worldwide. Leaning on those companies is the right thing to do in the face of a global pandemic; it is also the best way for the governments of rich countries to take care of their own populations, which in some cases experience more severe drug shortages than do people in far less affluent places.”
For the last few years, Achal was a Shuttleworth Fellow (full disclosure: I am currently a fellow). As Achal described his mission then: “Medicines save lives. Unfortunately, the private right to profit overrides the public’s right to access. Fake innovation manifested in bad patents harms humanity and blocks affordable, life-saving drugs while impeding real innovation. Too often, the cost of bad intellectual property is the price of life.”
He will join us tomorrow, Tuesday, January 19, to talk about the politics of vaccines.
We will also be joined by Indira Govender, a medical doctor and public health expert as well as a frequent contributor to Africa Is a Country, who will discuss a twin calamity: quackery and COVID-19 denialism.
This is our first episode of 2021.