Earlier this month, the President of Namibia was invited to attend the World Health Organization’s weekly press conference to talk about World Health Day. The idea was for him to help explain to hundreds of journalists around the world what was happening with the COVID-19 vaccination efforts in his southern African nation.
In what became all too common during the pandemic, the video connection was unstable. President Hage Geingob kept freezing on the screen. The audio would become muffled and inaudible, or the sound would be cut off entirely.
Then sometimes there would be flashes of clarity. “It’s COVID apartheid!” Geingob shouted.
“We have already made our deposit!” He insisted. It became clear that the president was using his time not to speak to the press but to enlist WHO officials in the room to finally deliver the vaccine doses he had already paid for through COVAX. This is the WHO-led initiative to procure and fairly distribute vaccines, particularly for low- and middle-income nations.
“We made the prepayment, but there is this exclusion. Apartheid COVID is now prevalent,” he said, comparing the inequality in global access to vaccines to the South African apartheid system that divided the country by lines. racial and has trapped millions of black Africans into poverty.
“Until now, we haven’t received any,” he said of the vaccines Namibia has ordered. The few hundred doses that Namibia has managed to obtain are “only because our good friends, China and India, have given us the vaccines.”
Namibia has so far administered fewer than 3,000 COVID-19 shots. This is a fraction of what a mass vaccination site in the United States, such as the Javits Center in New York City, runs every day.
In the United States, nearly 40% of the population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. In Namibia, less than 0.1% of the population has had a stroke.
The United States has administered more COVID-19 vaccinations than any other country in the world. Ingrid Katz, associate faculty director at the Harvard Global Health Institute, says the United States is now “in a somewhat thin air” in the global vaccination effort. “There are few other nations out there that are with us.” Globally, only 2.3% of the world population is fully vaccinated. In Africa it is less than 1%.
“If you look at the data globally,” says Katz, “you will see that about 75 percent of vaccines have gone to just 10 countries globally. There is huge and massive inequality.”
The countries that have managed to get a lot of people vaccinated – the US, the UK, India – all have manufacturing facilities that make the vaccines. They also had export restrictions which meant their own citizens were at the forefront of getting immunized. Major regional players such as South Africa have only half of 1% of their population fully vaccinated. In the Philippines it is less than 0.1%. Rich nations in Europe such as Germany, Spain, Italy and France also did not exceed 7%.
Katz says this is not a way to address a global health crisis. “If we assume it’s okay to just vaccinate American citizens but no one else in the world, we’ll be in big trouble,” he says.
Katz had an article in the New England Journal of Medicine in which she and her colleagues calculated that, based on vaccination rates that occurred globally in late March, it would take 4.6 years for the planet to reach. herd immunity against SARS-CoV-2. Since then the number of shots given each week has increased.
“But we’re still talking about years. It won’t be months” before this pandemic is under control, he says. And if the virus continues to spread and mutate for many more years, there’s a good chance that a variant may emerge that vaccines provide no protection for.
At that point the United States would not be in a better position than a country that had not vaccinated at all.
Immunizing the entire world “is an investment in our self-interest,” says Katz.