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Tackle Covid vaccine monopoly to protect poorest countries, Christian Aid urges

21 May 2021


A United Nations staff member checks a new batch of Covid-19 vaccines at the Carthage International Airport in Tunis, Tunisia, on Sunday

A United Nations staff member checks a new batch of Covid-19 vaccines at the Carthage International Airport in Tunis, Tunisia, on Sunday

“VACCINE apartheid”, in which wealthy countries monopolise supplies of Covid-19 vaccines while populations in the poorest countries wait for years to be protected, must be tackled, a new report from Christian Aid urges.

The report, Vaccine Debts, published on Monday, highlights a “triple whammy” facing the poorest countries: rising needs arising from the pandemic, falling revenues, and a “mushrooming” debt burden. To date, only about two per cent of the world’s vaccine doses have been given in Africa, despite its being home to 14 per cent of the world’s population. The slow rollout is due to an “inadequate global supply and hoarding of doses by rich countries”, the report says, but a “spiralling debt crisis” is exacerbating the situation.

Many African countries are reliant on the United Nations’ COVAX initiative (News, 22 March 2021), which seeks to achieve 20-per-cent global vaccine coverage by the end of this year. Their debt burden makes it difficult for them to procure vaccines outside the scheme, or to pay for the resources that they need to deliver vaccines once they have been secured.

The IMF estimates that more than half of the countries in Africa are in “debt distress” or at high risk of it: the share of revenues going on debt repayments has risen from 20 per cent before Covid to 30 per cent today. Research from the Jubilee Debt Campaign shows that as much as $11.3 billion of the funding given by the IMF to support 28 countries severely affected by the Covid-19 crisis is going to private lenders.

Existing moves to support indebted countries are inadequate, Christian Aid says. A deal delaying rather than cancelling debt repayment agreed by the G20 a year ago does not include commercial creditors, and many countries are afraid to sign up to it for fear of damaging their credit rating. African countries eligible for inclusion face scheduled debt payments of $30.5 billion in 2021: more than twice the estimated cost of vaccinating the continent.

Among the inequities highlighted in the report is the relative cost of the vaccine: Uganda paid about three times the price that the EU paid per dose of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. Whereas Canada and other countries pre-ordered ten vaccine doses for each person, the African Union has secured enough for only one in four people in the region.

In January, the Economist Intelligence Unit estimated that more than 85 of the poorest countries would not have widespread access to coronavirus vaccines before 2023. Christian Aid warns that “vaccine apartheid” poses a threat not only to these countries but to the world at large, echoing the World Health Organization’s statement that “None of us are safe until all of us are safe.”

Its report makes five recommendations: debt cancellation for developing countries; the inclusion of private creditors in a debt deal agreed by the G20; vaccines provided at cost to low-income countries; vaccine patents waived so that developing countries can boost production at home; and a “solidarity package” agreed by countries so that all countries can help in tackling Covid-19 and the climate crisis.

Although the recorded prevalence of Covid in Africa is much lower than in other regions (to date, there have been 4.7 million cases of the virus in Africa — out of a population of 1.3 billion — and 126,000 deaths), the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month that the death rate was increasing in some countries.

Dr Patrick Walker, of Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, told a Sky News investigation in March that the suggestion that Africa had been “spared” had become “a particularly dangerous narrative. Covid-19 trajectories have been highly variable, even between neighbouring countries, and in some countries in Africa some of our less optimistic projections are now rapidly becoming a reality.”

The Government has announced this week that it will convene a virtual Global Vaccine Confidence Summit on 2 June to “tackle misinformation” about Covid-19 vaccines.

Global taxation. Changes to taxation may hold the key to ensuring that the world’s poorest countries gain access to Covid-19 vaccines, a report from Church Action for Tax Justice suggests.

The report, A Global Tax Plan for a Global Pandemic, by Dr Justin Thacker, calculates that a global corporate minimum tax rate of 21 per cent, put forward by the US President, Joe Biden, in addition to a Minimum Effective Tax Rate (METR), would enable 30 of the world’s poorest countries to vaccinate at least 20 per cent of their populations. While the Biden proposal would mean that US-based multinational companies were forced to pay taxes in every country where they did business, the METR, proposed by economists, would mean that a higher proportion of these taxes would go to the countries in which the companies operated (often lower-income countries).

The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams, welcoming the report, said this week: “At last there are signs of some wealthier economies waking up both to their responsibilities and to the actual steps they can take to flesh out those responsibilities. We have a crucial window of opportunity to reframe our attitudes to taxation and make it work for all.”

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