The shattering disparities in COVID-19 vaccination rates between rich and poor countries could defeat efforts to implement the Paris agreement, a growing chorus of international leaders is warning ahead of a three-day summit of G7 leaders in Cornwall beginning Friday.
“Failure to agree a vaccination plan for poorer countries could lead to them refusing, or being unable, to work with rich countries in the battle against the climate crisis,” The Observer reports, citing a series of statements directed at UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
“There is an obvious link between equitable access to vaccines and action on climate change,” said Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland. “Only if we invest in equitable vaccine access and stand against vaccine nationalism will we beat COVID-19. Only if we ensure every country is able to afford to deal with its climate challenges will we be able to reach a meaningful agreement on a way forward.”
“We can’t have global solidarity and trust around tackling climate change if we do not show solidarity around vaccines,” agreed International Chamber of Commerce Chair and former Unilever CEO Paul Polman. “Developing countries will not come with more ambitious (climate) targets if they do not see developed countries showing some solidarity on vaccines, and climate funding.”
He added that the chances of solid progress at this year’s UN climate change conference, COP 26, “will be significantly higher if we address this vaccine issue.”
More than 200 prominent people, including 100 former world leaders like ex-British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, are now urging the G7 to cover the lion’s share of the US$66 billion it will cost to get vaccinations done in poor countries, the Washington Post reports this morning. The letter calls for “dose sharing, licencing agreements, and patent waivers to stimulate coronavirus vaccine production around the world in an effort to inoculate everyone and prevent the rise of virulent variants,” the Post says.
The leaders’ letter calls a comprehensive, global vaccine commitment “the best insurance policy in the world,” the Post writes.
Earlier this year, the Greta Thunberg Foundation donated €100,000 to support vaccine equity, and the #FridaysforFuture founder has since said she would boycott COP 26 if developing countries don’t get their fair share of vaccines.
“We have the means at our disposal to correct the great imbalance that exists around the world today in the fight against COVID-19,” she said in a mid-April statement released by the World Health Organization. “Just as with the climate crisis, we must help those who are the most vulnerable first.”
The vaccine gap “presents an object lesson for climate action because it signals the failure of richer nations to see it in their self-interest to urgently help poorer ones fight a global crisis,” the New York Times wrote last month. “That has direct parallels to global warming. Poor countries consistently assert that they need more financial and technological help from wealthier ones if the world as a whole is going to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. So far, the richest countries—which are also the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases—haven’t come up with the money.”
At the time, with more than 1.1 billion vaccine doses administered around the world, the United States was sitting on millions of surplus doses while India shattered daily records for new infections, with a vaccination rate of just 9%. “In New York City, you hear cries of relief at the chance to breathe free and unmasked,” the Times said. “In New Delhi, cries for oxygen.”
In its coverage this past weekend, The Observer calculated that the world’s wealthiest countries have enough vaccines to protect their entire populations from the COVID virus twice over. The Times reported that with more than two billion doses administered world-wide, the average vaccination rate is 27 per 100 population, but national totals range from 135 for the United Arab Emirates to 0.1 or less for Benin, Congo, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, South Sudan, Syria, and Vanuatu.
G20 countries on the short end of the vaccine administration scale include Russia with 21, Australia and South Korea at 19, India with 16, Japan with 12, Indonesia with 11, and South Africa with just 2.2 doses per 100.
The Observer says Johnson “will seek to calm tensions” by challenging the world’s wealthiest countries to help get the entire global population inoculated by the end of next year. “Vaccinating the world by the end of next year would be the single greatest feat in medical history,” he said. “I’m calling on my fellow G7 leaders to join us to end this terrible pandemic and pledge will we never allow the devastation wreaked by coronavirus to happen again.”
Beyond the “object lesson for climate change” in such a cataclysmic failure in vaccine distribution, the Times pointed to a pragmatic reason for the world’s richest countries to get their act together.
“This year’s vaccine shortages in the nations of the global South could hinder their ability to participate in the United Nations-led climate talks in Glasgow set for November, minimizing their voice in critical policy decisions about how to wean the global economy away from fossil fuels,” the paper wrote. Over the last week, with delegates attempting to hold mid-year climate negotiations in a virtual setting, things did not go well.
As far back as mid-March, climate diplomats from developing countries and civil society organizations were warning “that slow vaccine rollouts in poorer nations threaten the inclusivity of negotiations” at COP 26, Climate Home News reported. By this time, the United Nations was already citing a “wildly uneven and unfair” pace of vaccine distribution, with 75% of doses centred in 10 countries and 130 nations where not a single dose had been administered.
On one hand, “without vaccines for delegates, we could end up creating a global superspreader event in Glasgow,” warned Power Shift Africa director Mohamed Adow. But that reality set up the prospect of climate negotiators being vaccinated ahead of the most vulnerable people in their most vulnerable of countries.
“That is not equitable, that is queue-jumping,” Climate Action Network-International Executive Director Tasneem Essop told Climate Home. “How do we justify delegates coming to COP being vaccinated before health and front-line workers? We need to see a global effort to ensure equitable access to all countries. This is not what we are seeing.”
Even if delegates can gather in Glasgow this fall, countries won’t likely have the wherewithal to address the climate crisis without a prior deal on vaccines, Joss Garman, UK director of the European Climate Foundation, told The Observer.
“The savage impact of COVID is costing developing countries around $1 trillion every year,” he said. “Overwhelmed by this immediate and ongoing health and financial crisis, almost 100 countries have yet to put forward their climate plan for COP 26,” while “others have explicitly made their efforts on carbon contingent on more assistance from rich countries. Unless the G7 puts together a package on vaccines and debt relief, success at COP 26 could be in real jeopardy. ”