Far from uniting the world, the Covid-19 vaccine rollout is sharpening the divide between the haves and the have nots.

In Europe, there is an eerie sense of deja vu. When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit Europe in February last year, neighbouring countries quickly closed their borders to each other and started hoarding medical supplies.

Talk of unity, common camaraderie and equity between member states quickly gave way to beggar thy neighbour policies.

The President of the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen, vowed that this time around it would be different. In December last year, she welcomed the rollout of the vaccine as a “touching moment of unity.”

Fast forward to January 2021 and there is increasing acrimony in the European Union (EU) at the lacklustre speed with which vaccines are being rolled out.

This time, the EU Commission has been accused by member states of being too slow in ordering the necessary amount of vaccines needed by member states.

As political pressure inside the bloc mounts, politicians are looking for ways to explain why the bloc is struggling to vaccinate its people while other countries are racing ahead.

Germany has even sought to bypass the EU in a bid to secure additional vaccines for its citizens fearing the political consequences of a rising death toll. Similarly, Hungary has broken ranks and purchased 2 million doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.

So far, the best performing EU country, Denmark, has managed to vaccinate a paltry 4.2 people per 100. Contrast that to Israel which has vaccinated almost 55 people per 100 or the United Kingdom with 13.

Even the United States, which has mishandled the pandemic at every turn, resulting in the country having the highest death and infection rate in the world, has managed to roll out the vaccine to 8 people per 100 to the EU’s meagre 2.6.

The EU’s response thus far has been two-pronged. Firstly it has sought to blame the pharmaceutical companies for failing to meet their production targets.

Second, as the UK has successfully ploughed ahead vaccinating almost 10 million citizens, the EU has looked to blame the British headquartered Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca for prioritising the UK market over the EU.

The dispute has resulted in political acrimony on both sides of the Channel and perhaps unsurprisingly, nationalist flickers are re-emerging between European countries.

On Friday last week, Brussels imposed export controls on vaccines produced in the EU. The EU framed the move as a transparency measure to see where vaccines are going.

In reality, it looked like a targeted export ban aimed at the UK. The EU exempted dozens of countries from export control, unsurprisingly the UK was left off the list.

Some UK politicians called the EU export ban an “incredible act of hostility.” The office of the British Prime Minister warned the EU that “as a friend and ally”, it should not seek to disrupt the UK’s vaccination program.

Increasingly there is a chorus of voices suggesting that the EU has only itself to blame for the slow rollout. It ordered vaccines too late and when it did finally sign the contracts, it ordered too few.

In targeting the UK as a potential source for its problems, the EU has resorted to what the head of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, recently warned against: "vaccine nationalism."

There was a "real danger that the very tools that could help to end the pandemic - vaccines - may exacerbate" inequality around the world, said Ghebreyesus.

Further afield, outside of the EU, vaccine inequality presents an all together different challenge.

Israel, the vaccine success story?

When Germany announced in October of 2020 that it would include Israel in the EU’s vaccination programme, but not the Palestinians, for many it was an early indication that the vaccine rollout would further expose global political cleavages.

While Israel hasn’t benefited greatly from the EU’s chaotic vaccination programme, instead choosing to go it alone, for the Palestinians it has been just the same. They’ve been left in he lurch.

With more than 34 percent of the population having received one dose of the vaccine, Israel has been seen as a test case of how effective the vaccine will be in ensuring that life returns to normal.

Yet the Israeli vaccination success story has been overshadowed by the government’s insistence of withholding the vaccine from Palestinians in the occupied territories.

Over the weekend, Israel announced that it would transfer 5,000 vaccines to the Palestinian Authority which would cover approximately 2,500 people. The gesture, however, falls short of what Israel is obliged to do under international law as an occupying power.

UN experts in a recent statement have made it explicitly clear that Israel bears the responsibility to ensure mass vaccination in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

“Israel has not ensured that Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza will have any near-future access to the available vaccines. The COVID-19 pandemic has been ravaging the West Bank and Gaza in recent months, and has fractured an already badly under-resourced Palestinian health care system,” the UN statement said.

While occupying Israeli settlers in the West Bank have received the vaccine, Palestinians often only a few hundred metres from the settlements and often a source of cheap labour, have to go without.

Concerns about who will get the vaccine and at what price are increasing amongst developing and middle income countries. So far, the vast majority of vaccines have been pre-ordered by rich Western countries which has been dubbed by some as a form of “vaccine aparthaid.”

But developing countries are starting to fight back.

Developing world seeks its share

As it became clear towards the end of last year that working vaccines would become available, South African and Indian diplomats approached the World Health Organisation (WHO) urging it to suspend intellectual property rights over the vaccines.

Western countries, pharmaceutical companies and billionaires like Bill Gates have bitterly opposed the move.

When Oxford University announced that it would donate its coronavirus vaccine recipe to any drugmaker around the world, the idea was that in order to contain the pandemic, everyone must have equal access to the vaccine.

But that altruistic stance didn’t last long. And only a few weeks after Oxford made that announcement, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation convinced the university to sell the rights of the vaccine to AstraZeneca. There would be no guarantee of low prices.

While Western countries have been busy ordering vaccines, African, Asian and Latin American countries have been largely locked out.

According to a study by the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, Canada has ordered more than 330 million vaccines enough for each person to receive 9.6 doses.

The African Union on the other hand has only been able to order 270 million doses for more than 1.2 billion people.

The vaccine gap will ensure that the richest countries will emerge from the crises far quicker than developing countries, exacerbating poverty and inequality. The shortsighted approach, however, could also result in the coronavirus having more time to mutate and potentially even achieve resistance to vaccines.

That sobering thought, for selfish reasons alone, could loosen the vaccine clasp of richer countries. Who after all wants more lockdowns?

Source: TRT World