IT is finally vaccine time — at least in some places. A little over a week ago, the first person was vaccinated against Covid-19 in the United Kingdom. This week, the United States began to vaccinate its own front-line healthcare workers. A great deal of drama surrounded the rollout; cable news cameras were there to provide live feeds of the vaccine, which is produced by the Pfizer plant in Michigan, being loaded into two special refrigerated trucks. One, a FedEx truck, would head to the American west and another, a UPS truck, would head out to the east.
Closer to home, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain both began vaccinating their populations with another vaccine. The vaccine, called Sinopharm, is produced by a Chinese state-run company, and the approval of Arab nations is likely to go far in allowing the company to distribute its vaccine worldwide.
Groups like the People’s Vaccine Alliance have been lobbying emphatically for Covid-19 vaccines to be made available to every human being. They have also been advocating against patenting vaccines that have been developed. Ensuring that there are no patents would mean that the most effective vaccines could be replicated at lower cost by developing countries and thus be available to a greater chunk of the global population. In support of their propositions, the group cites Jonas Salk, the scientist who developed the polio vaccine, who remarked that putting a patent on the vaccine would be akin to putting a patent on the sun.
The demands certainly state how things should be, but it is not how things probably will be. Already, there are accusations that rich countries are hoarding the vaccine. Predictably, President Donald Trump has insisted that all Americans must be vaccinated first. Other countries may be less overt about their plans, but it is known that that 96 per cent of the Pfizer vaccine and 100pc of the Moderna vaccine have already been purchased by wealthy countries. Canada has apparently purchased enough doses of the vaccine to vaccinate its population five times over.
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The People’s Vaccine Alliance has been lobbying emphatically for Covid-19 vaccines to be made available to every human being.
There are 172 countries participating in the World Health Organisation’s COVAX initiative, which seeks to make the vaccine available to everyone. But COVAX, despite being much touted, has only been able to procure 250 million doses — far below the numbers purchased by some of the world’s wealthiest countries.
In Pakistan, the government has promised that every citizen will receive the vaccine free of charge. The vaccine is not even expected to be available in the country until April. It has not yet been specified where Pakistan’s vaccines will come from. On the plus side, the yet unknown side effects of the many vaccines under production may be better known.
If Pakistan decides to procure the vaccines from China, it would be essential that the government obtain safety data from the manufacturers. This may prove to be problematic since the Chinese government, which owns a stake in all Chinese companies, does not have a history of being transparent about its methodology and data. It may provide vaccines at lower cost to many countries, but it may not be known exactly how these vaccines work and how effective they are.
Then there are problems of credibility. Even before Covid-19 hit, Pakistanis had a history of being suspicious of vaccinations. They have good reason to be, after all; it was a hepatitis vaccination programme that was used by the CIA to obtain DNA from Osama bin Laden’s hidden progeny. The impact of that event, the propaganda spread by various extremist groups, and the general experience of government incompetency all mean that the regular Pakistani cannot help but hesitate.
To prevent this, the government needs to begin taking steps right away. First of all, it must be made clear which vaccine is being procured and what ongoing safety information is available concerning the trials of that vaccine. Second, a public health initiative must be launched to create confidence in the vaccine. Third, when the vaccine finally does become available, various political leaders must take the vaccine publicly, in front of television cameras.
None of these things can happen unless the vaccine that is procured is well and widely tested. The worst possible way to go about this is for one vaccine to be procured for all the poor masses and then others made available for the wealthy who can afford better vaccines and are not limited to the cheap public version. Sadly, if the past is evidence, this is precisely how things will proceed.
Thousands have died in Pakistan from Covid-19, lives have been forever changed and opportunities have slipped away because of the virus. The measure of casualties from this plague are enumerated in terms of those who have died, but the living also suffer, not only from the long-standing side effects of this terrible disease but from its impact on society, economy and opportunity.
There is, of course, no vaccine to prevent further losses of these other kinds — which will have their own enduring impact on the generation coming of age in a world (rightly) terrified of touch, of being close, of getting together.
The arrival of vaccines is undoubtedly a hopeful event; less so is the fact that the vaccine disbursal will follow the usual global diagrams of wealth inequality, diplomatic relationships and access to healthcare in general. There should not be a rich vaccine and a poor vaccine, but it is quite likely that this is exactly what will be, even as we are told that some vaccine is better than no vaccine at all.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, December 16th, 2020