Vaccine Inequity is Apartheid and a Peace Issue

Peace Advocate April 2022

Medical workers demanding global access to COVID-19 vaccines to end the pandemic

by Cate Henning

With more than 3 billion people unvaccinated against COVID-19, the world is merely waiting for the next variant to mutate, spread, and kill. While 70% of people in wealthy countries are vaccinated, only 14% of people in low-income countries have received at least a first dose of a COVID vaccine. This disparity is vaccine apartheid, caused by nationalism and corporate greed. Wealthy countries and pharmaceutical companies are hoarding vaccines and vaccine intellectual property to protect monopoly control and profit. Peace activists should be deeply concerned with global COVID vaccine inequity because it is a direct consequence of bloated military spending and imperialism. 

Moral budget, not military budget

At the current rate of production, it will be 2024 before every person has access to a COVID vaccine. To accelerate this process to save millions of lives, Pfizier and Moderna must share their vaccine intellectual property and technology with the 100 manufacturing facilities in Africa, Asia, and Latin America that are capable of producing mRNA vaccines. This would create a legal pathway for global vaccine access, and there is no question that the United States can fund this production. Estimates for the cost of manufacturing and distributing enough vaccines for every person in the world fall between $25 and $70 billion. At the highest estimate, supporting global access to COVID vaccines will cost less than 9% of this year’s $778 billion US military budget. As peace advocates have been arguing for decades, the Unites States must redirect funding away from war, militarism, and corporatism to reinvest in public health. A small fraction of this reinvestment can help end the pandemic everywhere.  

Global vaccine inequity is imperialism 

Aside from the issue of military spending, global COVID vaccine inequality is a peace issue because it is the direct result of colonialism and a modern form of imperialism. These broad policies that drive militarism and US involvement in war are guiding the United States’ insufficient and inequitable global pandemic response. Over centuries, colonizers have exploited countries to gain power and promote self-interests. They have used violence to destroy cultures and institutions and to strip countries of their resources and stability. Vaccine apartheid is the result of neocolonial policies that similarly prioritize the expansion of wealth and power at the expense of human life. Vaccine apartheid exists because western countries continue to advance these imperialist policies. 

Up to this point, the United States and other wealthy countries have donated excess COVID vaccines to low-income countries as their primary policy for increasing global vaccine access. This charity approach to public health is temporary and inadequate, as the donated supply does not come close to meeting the need, nor does it establish long-lasting public health infrastructure. A real solution involves breaking pharmaceutical company monopolies on patents and investing in manufacturing, allowing low-income countries to produce vaccines for themselves. 

Why isn’t this the United States’ policy approach? Because it would reduce corporate power. Donating limited amounts of vaccines deflects criticism and allows wealthy countries to present as protecting people while actually protecting patents and profits. Low-income countries are forced to depend on wealthy countries for access to lifesaving medicine. This is imperialism, and “the white man’s burden” is used as its justification. Just as the false claim of protecting freedom and democracy serve as covers for US military intervention, vaccine donations to low-income countries sustain international corporate predominance and help people in power attempt to justify vaccine apartheid. 

We need international solidarity 

Neocolonialist policies have produced vaccine apartheid, and international solidarity is the solution. As such, peace advocates and advocates for global access to COVID vaccines share significant common ground. 

International solidarity means global cooperation for the collective good of all people. It requires people to recognize the struggles of others as their own. In the context of global COVID vaccine access, this would mean that countries value equitable global vaccination above national vaccination, and understand that this is in their self interest. Wealthy countries should share vaccine technology and intellectual property, viewing it as a public good for all. Leaders and politicians must appreciate that no one is safe from COVID until everyone has access to a vaccine. 

Instead, wealthy countries have used their disproportionate power to obtain enough vaccines to vaccinate their populations with both rounds of the vaccine more than 2 times over. While they hoard vaccines and intellectual property, more than 3 billion people remain fully exposed to the risk of death and illness from COVID. Wealthy nations are rejecting international solidarity in favor of exorbitant wealth and power. This is the reason for vaccine apartheid, and it is the reason for imperialism, military intervention, and war. 

Vaccine apartheid is a peace issue.

Cate Henning is a Northeastern student and a MAPA intern.