Omicron Variant Underscores Why We Must Abolish Global Vaccine Apartheid

While politicians and commentators in the Global North wring their hands over fellow citizens who refuse vaccination, they show little concern for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who desperately want to get the vaccine but cannot do so.

Costas Panayotakis Nov 29, 2021

Even as the Delta variant continues to wreak havoc in Europe and around the world, the advent of the Omicron variant is a reminder of the impasse that the world has reached in its ongoing fight against COVID-19.  

Illustrating how the refusal by wealthy nations to share vaccines with poorer countries could render futile all our efforts against the virus up to this moment, we are faced with the possibility that the new variant may prove resistant to the vaccines that we had hoped to bring the pandemic under control. In a stratified, global-capitalist society where rich countries hoard the vaccine — leaving millions of doses to go unused and expired — there are entire regions of the Global South in which hundreds of millions of people still don’t have access to the first dose of the vaccine, not to mention the booster shots that are already widely available in the Global North.

Global solidarity is the cure. Otherwise, we will never defeat this virus. 

As the massive pandemic wave in Europe right now shows, however, this situation has made the pandemic a problem not unique to the Global South but a punishing scourge for every country in the world. While politicians and commentators in the Global North are wringing their hands over fellow citizens who have refused to be vaccinated, they have shown little concern for the hundreds of millions of people around the world who desperately want to get the vaccine and cannot do so. In the process, they themselves fuel such paranoia by ignoring warnings by many scientists that the ongoing global vaccine apartheid will facilitate the emergence of evermore dangerous strains of the virus that will turn our efforts to thwart the pandemic to naught. 

How can one convincingly launch a public health campaign when the hypocrisy of their appeals to science and reason is so blatant? And don’t politicians in the Global North who either veto the suspension of vaccine patents or make minimal efforts to immediately distribute the vaccine to every corner of the world create the suspicion that they don’t really believe the virus to be the serious threat they claim it to be?  After all, wouldn’t someone who really thought that the threat from the pandemic is as serious as these politicians and commentators (rightly) portray it to be do everything they can to address this threat?  

In short, doesn’t the complicity of political rulers in the ongoing global vaccine apartheid fuel the paranoid dismissal of the pandemic as just another instance of “fake news?”

If there is anything that we should learn from the ongoing development of new COVID strains that originate in areas of the world with low access to vaccines such as South Africa, it is that as much emphasis has to be placed on ending the global vaccine apartheid as on launching more effective information and public health campaigns within the societies of the Global North. It is, though, hard to maintain optimism in a capitalist society that daily proves the greater allegiance of our democratically elected leaders to the bottom line of large corporations than to the health and needs of the citizens they are supposed to represent.

One ray of hope in an otherwise bleak global landscape is the recent surge of the Black Lives Matter and the global climate justice movements. The surge in these two campaigns during the pandemic as well as its racially and geographically stratified impact suggests the possibility of a worldwide solidarity movement seeking to challenge global vaccine apartheid.  

The irrationality of anti-vaxxers and corporate capitalism are two sides of the same coin.

Two other considerations point in the same direction. First, the fact that solidarity for the populations in the Global South who do not have access to the vaccine does not presuppose idealistic altruism on the part of people in the Global North but simply a recognition that their own health and livelihoods depend on bringing global vaccine apartheid to an end.  Secondly, the fact that the development of the vaccines depended crucially on funding and sales guarantees by a number of governments around the world, including the U.S. government, strengthens the hand of governments against pharmaceutical corporations that prioritize profit over human lives. This point also opens governments who don’t take immediate action to make the vaccine available around the planet to the charge that, after having socialized the cost of the vaccine’s development, they now prefer to privatize the profits even at the expense of the taxpayers and citizens who helped to make these vaccines a reality.  

Faced with the irrationality of anti-vaxxers as well as of corporate capitalism and its political beneficiaries, if these cosiderations do indeed lead to a massive, worldwide movement against global vaccine apartheid, reason and science may, after all, be given another chance.

Costas Panayotakis is Professor of Sociology at the New York City College of Technology (CUNY) and author of The Capitalist Mode of Destruction: Austerity, Ecological Crisis and the Hollowing out of Democracy (Manchester University Press).

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