A quick glance at the world map of COVID-19 vaccination rates reveals an unsurprising pattern: it validates predictions that more than half of the world’s vaccines are reserved for one-seventh of the world’s population.
It seems that developing the vaccines was easy compared to the challenge of distributing them in a fair and efficient way.
Vaccine nationalism was always to be expected, and it may be understandable in countries where the virus is killing thousands of people each day. The political economy of COVID-19 is merely following an established trend.
But in Australia — where the current active case count in 55 and there have been five deaths in the past three months — calls to do “whatever it takes” to get ahead of others in acquiring and distributing the vaccines are unprincipled and short-sighted.
Waiting our turn is better for two main reasons.
The first is moral. Healthcare resources are scarce. It is commonly agreed that medical interventions are allocated based on need. The person suffering a heart attack will be triaged ahead of someone with a broken toe — even if the latter arrived first.
In the medium term at least, COVID-19 vaccine supplies will be scarce and precious. It’s a zero-sum game: every administered dose means someone misses out. Ensuring that the worst-affected countries get the vaccine first is critical. Immunising Australians now would be immoral as it would most certainly generate avoidable deaths elsewhere.
The other reason is pure self-interest. Coronaviruses are very prone to mutation. Some mutations can result in a new strain that is more contagious, more lethal or even one more resistant to vaccines. Uncontrolled spread anywhere in the world can yield variants that pose a threat everywhere.
This isn’t the Olympic Games. It’s a deadly pandemic that needs to be stopped as soon as possible. This means allocating vaccines based on need. Australia’s need is thankfully low.
Waiting our turn is in our best interest — morally, diplomatically, and economically.