System change needed to end global vaccine apartheid

By Jed Koball | Mission Co-worker, Peru

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY

Earlier this year Pastor Abdias Echeverría lost his battle to COVID-19. Ordained in the Reformed Evangelical Church of Peru (IEP), a long-time human rights activist, and a founder of our global partner Red Uniendo Manos Peru (UMP), Abdias represents the growing inequities of suffering known among BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) and impoverished communities of the world. Abdias is one of two founders of UMP to die from COVID-19 in recent months.

And just weeks ago, the former director of our global partner lost his 45 year old son to the undiscriminating virus.  And despite churches not being able to congregate this past year, the IEP is still determining the number of pastors it has lost.

Throughout the world COVID-19 has claimed nearly 3 million lives across race, class and nationalities, but it has done so at disproportionate rates among BIPOC and impoverished populations of the world (both inside and outside the United States).

The vaccines that may bring an end to the pandemic are now beginning to save lives, but they are accessible at conversely disproportionate rates among BIPOC and impoverished populations of the world (both inside and outside the United States).  At the time of writing this blog, 25% of the adult population in the United States has received at least one dose of vaccine against COVID-19. At the same time, less than ½ of 1% of the adult population in Peru has been inoculated.

On a global scale, current projections indicate that while most of the United States will be vaccinated by the end of summer in 2021, most of the Global South will not be vaccinated until 2023.

Let’s be clear, lives are at stake.

Let’s be clear, lives are at stake. And from where I stand, I know that the people I love in Peru are just as worthy of a vaccine today as the people I love in the United States, yet they won’t be getting vaccinated anytime soon. They will continue to live at greater risk, and some will die. It is not too late for the church to take a leading and prominent role in the fight for global vaccine equity.

One, this is a moral issue – plain and simple. This is perhaps THE moral issue of our time. Every human life has value. Every human life is at risk. Every human life must be protected. Now.

Two, this is a strategic issue. It is a race against time. The threats lurking for all of us – vaccinated or not – are the variants that are developing day after day. To date, more than 4,000 variants have been detected. Of those variants, five have proven to be worrisome because of their more rapid transmission rates and/or their higher fatality rates. What is more worrisome still is the variant that may develop that proves itself to be resistant to current vaccines. The only way to prevent this is to vaccinate the entire world at equitable rates as fast as we can.

Three, this is an economic issue. Due to a global economy woven together through trade agreements and multi-national corporations, it is not possible to fully activate the economy of any one nation without fully activating the economy of every other nation. Manufacturers in the United States cannot roar back to full capacity if the factory in a foreign land cannot produce the parts it needs. A successful recovery of the economy requires compassion for laborers, farmers, and wage earners throughout the world.

The reasons for global vaccine inequity are complex and somewhat contextual, but we can point to a few dominant and global issues:

Peruvians line up with suitcases waiting to get inside the grocery store. Photo by Jed Koball.

In the early days of the pandemic, wealthier nations invested billions of dollars in purchasing vaccines from dozens of pharmaceuticals. In some cases, they purchased nearly five times the amount of vaccines needed to inoculate the populations of their country. At the time of writing this blog, there are ten countries that have about ¾ of the vaccines produced so far.

To combat this, the World Health Organization (WHO) organized COVAXX which receives financial support from wealthier nations and allows the WHO to negotiate with pharmaceuticals on behalf of less wealthy nations. While nations like the US are contributing to COVAXX, it is underfunded.

For countries like Peru, which is considered a middle-income country, it will receive minimal support from COVAXX, leaving it responsible to negotiate directly with pharmaceutical corporations. But because of its limited buying power, it has to wait to see which vaccines are viable before bidding on them. This puts Peru, and similar countries, at the back of the line, while also having to pay more per dose than larger countries like the US. In effect, Peru has had to pay retail prices that are sometimes 2 to 3 times more per dose than the wholesale price being paid by bigger and wealthier countries.

Because middle and low income countries could not go to the negotiating table with the pharmaceuticals early on in the pandemic, they were not only left at the back of the line for negotiating but also for distribution. Vaccines are arriving to Peru, but they are trickling in. Right now, Peru is receiving 50,000 doses per week from Pfizer for a total population of 24 million adults that need to be vaccinated. Yes, Peru is negotiating with other pharmaceuticals, but distribution has not been guaranteed until October at the earliest because of back log.

Two things need to happen to rapidly increase production and distribution rates to middle and low-income countries:

1. Pharmaceutical companies must openly share vaccines know-how. They can do this through joining the World Health Organization Covid-19 Technology and Access Pool (C-TAP).

2. Governments must suspend patent rules at the World Trade Organization on Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and testing during the pandemic. This will help break Big Pharma monopolies and increase supplies so there are enough doses for everyone, everywhere.

As a Matthew 25 Church, this is not simply another issue to add to a long list of issues. Prior to the pandemic, we all had ¨agendas¨. Our agendas were interrupted. But as Pastor Abdias once said to me, ministry happens in the interruptions. There has been no greater interruption in our life than the pandemic, and I contend there is no greater ministry for the Church today than to address the unfolding global vaccine apartheid.

As the billions of BIPOC of the world suffer at disproportional rates because of lack of access to vaccines and treatments, this is an issue of structural racism. As the billions of BIPOC and impoverished peoples of the world fall further behind in economic growth, this is an issue of systemic poverty. As pastors of church goers around the world are shut off from their congregations or die in the effort to connect with them, this is an issue for Vital Congregations. This is Matthew 25. This is our agenda. It is time for the church to stand up and speak out for Global Vaccine Equity.


PC(USA) joins call for wider global production of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments

400+ US Civil Society Organizations Call on Pres. Biden to Stop Blocking COVID-19 WTO Waiver to Boost Vaccines, Treatments Worldwide

Feb 2021 COVID-19 vaccine letter to President Biden

Vaccine Letter to US Trade Representative Lighthizer

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