Kathriona Devereux: A moral dilemma on vaccines, will West do the right thing?

The enormous scientific effort that led to Covid-19 vaccines may be for nothing if we fail to distribute the vaccines fairly, so says Kathriona Devereux
Kathriona Devereux: A moral dilemma on vaccines, will West do the right thing?

Masked Filipinos celebrate the dawn of 2021 in Manila. Should that country’s health workers get a vaccine ahead of healthy Irish?

HERE’S a moral dilemma for you. Your GP rings to say you’re next on the list for a Covid-19 vaccination and asks would you like to make an appointment?

You are a perfectly healthy 30-something year old with no under-lying health conditions and are aware that most healthcare workers in developing countries have not received their Covid vaccination. Do you make an appointment?

Of course, it won’t come down to individuals saying yay or nay to a Covid-19 vaccination, but it will mean countries collectively saying they will delay administering vaccines to their young and healthy population in order for low and middle income countries to be able to access vaccine supplies sooner.

So far, 10 countries in the world have administered 75% of Covid-19 vaccinations and 130 countries have had none at all. 

Fewer than 1% of vaccine doses globally have been administered in the 32 countries facing severe or very severe humanitarian crises. Shocking but true.

The global pandemic, which has exacerbated inequalities in the world, looks set to continue widening the gap between the haves and the haves not. Those who have access to an effective vaccine and those who have not.

Last week, Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation (WHO) made a strong speech, calling countries in the ‘Global North’ to stop and think about their unfair and selfish hoovering up of Covid-19 vaccinations.

While we are all understandably eager to return to normality, he reminded us that there are healthcare workers in developing countries who have yet to be vaccinated and don’t know when the vaccines are coming.

These are countries with fragile healthcare infrastructures, where workers already face difficult conditions to deliver care to their patients. They are sick and tired of Covid too.

Ryan warned that the history books won’t look kindly on rich countries that proceed to vaccinate young and healthy people ahead of healthcare workers and vulnerable people in low and middle income countries.

The Philippines is one of those countries that has yet to receive vaccine doses. It is negotiating supply agreements with seven manufacturers for 148 million doses so it can inoculate 70 million adults, or two-thirds of its population.

The Philippines has a population of 109 million people, it has had 557,000 Covid-19 cases and 11,827 Covid-19 related deaths. It has a stretched healthcare system in normal times and last summer healthcare workers pleaded with the government for a national lockdown to halt the wave of Covid-19 cases threatening to overwhelm hospitals.

For an emerging economy like the Philippines, the ongoing economic hardship of extended lockdown will lead to increased poverty and inequality.

I spent six weeks in the Philippines about eight years ago and have been fascinated by the country and its people since. It is the third largest English-language speaking country in the world, more than 95% of its population speak it. This means you can read local newspapers and find out about what is happening there relatively easily.

A man rides his bicycle as traffic creeps though a checkpoint outside Manila, Philippines, during one of the country's lockdowns to curb the surge in coronavirus cases. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
A man rides his bicycle as traffic creeps though a checkpoint outside Manila, Philippines, during one of the country's lockdowns to curb the surge in coronavirus cases. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

There are about 16,000 Filipinos living in Ireland, some for more than 20 years. Travelling in the Philippines, I would often meet people who had friends or family living in Ireland.

Six thousand Filipinos work as nurses in Irish hospitals (7% of all nurses) with many more working as carers for the elderly, disabled and young children.

Watching the recent RTÉ Investigates programme Covid 19 — The Third Wave, documenting the latest surge of Covid-19 infections crashing over the staff at Tallaght University Hospital, highlighted how much the Irish healthcare system relies on international workers.

Whether someone works in a hospital in Manila or a hospital in Mallow, they deserve to be vaccinated as quickly as possible.

Last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a meeting of the UN Security Council they have a “moral duty” to deliver a global vaccination programme. There is a practical reason to do this as well as a moral one.

Guterres said: “If the virus is allowed to spread like wildfire in the ‘Global South’, it will mutate again and again. New variants could become more transmissible, more deadly and potentially threaten the effectiveness of current vaccines and diagnostics. This can prolong the pandemic significantly, enabling the virus to come back to plague the ‘Global North’ and delaying the world economic recovery.”

The enormous scientific effort that led to the creation of effective vaccines may be for nothing if we fail to mount an enormous humanitarian effort to distribute the vaccines fairly.

Speaking at the Security Council meeting, Minister Simon Coveney said that how we roll out vaccines will have far-reaching implications for peace and security.

Prolonged economic hardship will lead to hunger — 270 million people are facing food insecurity — that will trigger forced migration, displacement and recruitment by extremist groups, which, in turn, will drive more conflict and deepen humanitarian needs.

Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, brings together the WHO, World Bank, Unicef, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other organisations to administer vaccines in ‘normal times’ to the world’s poorest people and has established the Covax Facility to procure and deliver Covid-19 vaccines to low and middle income countries.

Ireland has increased its support to Gavi by 20% and all G20 countries need to fund and work harder to ensure Covax works.

With a seat at the UN Security Council, Ireland is uniquely in a position to influence the course of history and urge world readers to do the right thing. But, given the despondency and anger at the ongoing lockdown in Ireland, how politically palatable would it be for governments to delay vaccinations in order for countries like the Philippines to get their fair dose? Something to think about before your GP calls.

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