Members of the Indigenous Maasai community wait to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at a health centre near Nairobi, Kenya. CNS photo/Thomas Mukoya, Reuters

Glen Argan: ‘Me first’ tradition lives on with vaccines

  • September 15, 2021

At the beginning of the current pandemic, there was much discussion about the need for a new normal to emerge after the crisis. Yet increasingly, old divisions are being exacerbated and the dominance of the rich over the poor is being repeated in new ways. Instead of moving toward a more equitable global sharing of resources, wealthier nations cling to the sad tradition of “me first” in allocating vaccines to battle the coronavirus.

While wealthy nations have promised to donate more than one billion doses of vaccine for use in poorer nations, to date less than 15 per cent of those vaccines have been delivered. Even worse, of those vaccines donated, countries such as Canada and Britain are sending their leftovers — millions of vaccines that will expire within weeks, according to a Sept. 9 Globe and Mail article.

Sending poorer nations our leftover vaccines is contrary to the solidarity which must emerge if the world is to move toward a new normal worthy of the name.

Even those vaccines produced in developing nations are being shipped to Western nations. The vast majority of vaccines produced in South Africa, for instance, have been exported to Europe. As a direct result, South Africa was devastated by the Delta variant.

In many poorer countries, distribution problems undermined the effectiveness of donations. In early June, the central African nation of Chad received 100,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine which must be stored at extremely low temperatures. Five weeks later, only 6,000 of those vaccines had been used. Put that down to the predictable inability to use those vaccines outside major cities. Installing the necessary freezers would have overloaded the electrical grid and the country suffered from a shortage of people trained to administer the vaccine.

In Zimbabwe, people are desperate to get the vaccines, but delivery has been slow. Those with enough money are bribing officials to give them the vaccine or paying high fees to get it from private clinics.

While the portion of the population which is fully vaccinated in most wealthy nations is higher than 60 per cent, in Africa only three per cent of the people have received the necessary doses.

A major principle of Catholic social teaching is that of the universal destination of all goods. That is, a tenet of our faith is that God gave the Earth to humanity to sustain all people without favouring or excluding anyone. Each person is entitled to a fair share of Earth’s resources. No one should hoard more than that to which they are reasonably entitled.

The failing of richer countries is to assume we receive no more than our fair share even though other people live in garbage dumps, receive little formal education and lack access to adequate medical care. Little will change as long as we remain convinced that we are receiving no more than our fair share.

Corporations need us to believe this myth so we do not question our current level of consumption and continue to buy more than we need. Pharmaceutical companies’ profits are based on our assumption that we in richer nations should receive the lion’s share of their products. If we viewed people who live in poverty as our brothers and sisters, we would insist that they receive full access to goods and services needed for a dignified life. The huge gap between rich and poor has lasted through the millennia because the wealthy are indifferent to the suffering of the poor.

At a Mass celebrated near Edmonton in 1984, Pope John Paul II declared, “In the light of Christ’s words, the poor South will judge the rich North. And the poor people and poor nations — poor in different ways, not only lacking food, but also deprived of freedom and other human rights — will judge those people who take these goods away from them, amassing to themselves the imperialistic monopoly of economic and political supremacy at the expense of others.”

If we are serious about creating a new normal, we need to take the sainted pope’s words to heart. Why are we sending poorer nations our leftover vaccines, those that are about to expire, those which are unsuitable to their climate and technological capacities? Would we treat our brothers and sisters this way? Would we hoard life-saving vaccines for ourselves while our loved ones have no access to them?

What will the peoples of the  poor South say when they are asked to judge us?

(Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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