(UPDATE 3/18: The US has just agreed to send 4 million vaccines to Canada and Mexico… which is still only a fraction of the tens of millions of unused vaccines. So this discussion and your actions continue to matter.)
Trump received much push back for his “America First” behavior. Naturally, many people hoped things would get better with a different president.
And while things have gotten better for many less privileged Americans since Biden took over, on the international stage the new administration hasn’t yet fully departed from Trump’s “America First” course.
At least that’s a possible conclusion from recent news reports according to which the US sits on millions of unused AstraZeneca vaccines. Since AstraZeneca hasn’t yet been approved in the US and thus isn’t used within that country, other governments have reportedly reached out to the US, asking that the vaccine be shared with/loaned out to them.
So far, the US government has declined all requests. Given recent public outrage, this might change soon (see below how you can help the cause).
Vaccine hoarding will cost lives globally
Even though the US has pledged to donate $4 billion for COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries and is thus doing something to help the rest of the world, that by itself is not enough.
American vaccine hoarding is harmful because vaccines are currently a limited resource. Amnesty International points out that rich countries
“have bought up over half the world’s vaccine supply, but represent just 16 per cent of the world’s population.”
Amnesty also states that 100 countries have yet to vaccinate even a single person. In other words, while the vast majority of the planet hasn’t made any real headway on vaccinations, millions of vaccines that could save lives are metaphorically “collecting dust” in American warehouses.
That’s terrible because buying vaccines is currently a zero-sum game. As Andrea Taylor, a researcher at Duke University’s Global Health Innovation Center, described it: ”
“It remains to a large degree a zero-sum game, which means that every dose that goes to the U.S. or the U.K. or an E.U. country is a dose that’s off the shelves.”
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has pointed out that out of the vaccine doses administered so far, nearly 70% were in the wealthiest 50 countries and only 0.1% in the 50 poorest countries.
As the Secretary General of the IFRC, Jagan Chapagain, so succinctly put it:
“Let me be clear: In the race to end this pandemic, we are all rowing the same boat. We cannot sacrifice those at highest risk in some countries so that those at lowest risk can be vaccinated in others.”
Of course, in the case of the American stockpile of AstraZeneca, the vaccines are currently not even used to vaccinate anyone in the US.
If this makes you angry, here are some things you can do
- Share information about this with other people (for instance, this article).
- If you’re an American, call your local representative (it’s easier than you think and you can find your local representative here) to express your disappointment about this behavior and to demand that the US does better.
- If you’re not an American, encourage your American friends to call their local representatives about this. Also check if your own country is hoarding vaccines. If it does, call your local representatives to complain.
- Start a petition. (Send me the link via the comment section and I’ll link to it here.) Keep in mind that this is probably less effective than calling your local representative.
Of course, global inequality is not limited to the vaccine rollout. If you want to do something that directly improves the situation for people in poorer countries, consider making a donation to Effective Altruism’s Global Health and Development Fund. While your donation won’t go towards COVID-19 vaccines, it will likely create the biggest “bang for the buck” when it comes to making a difference.
The US could do so much better
For a country that’s proud of having sent CARE packages to people who needed them during World War 2, this is rather strange behavior.
For an administration that promised to build back better, this is also not on brand. According to the PEW Research Center, America’s global reputation has declined during the Trump era and in some countries, ratings for the US reached an all-time low in 2020. Sharing vaccines with countries who need them the most would be a chance to create some global goodwill and improve the American image.
This is in stark contrast to the Norwegian government which has explicitly committed to sharing vaccine doses with poorer countries at the same time as vaccinating its own citizens. As Dag-Inge Ulstein, Norwegian Minister of International Development, explained:
“If the virus is circulating in one country, the rest of the world remains at risk. The new mutations are a clear reminder of the urgency.”
Given all this, I hope that the US will reconsider its stance on sharing unused vaccines and have a more altruistic response. There are some promising indications that this might happen.
By spreading the word about vaccine hoarding and calling your local representative to complain about it, you can increase the chances of that happening.
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