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Covid-19 vaccines must be free and accessible to people in the Global South

A nurse prepares treatment for a patient in Uganda.

By Anne Jellema, chair of ActionAid’s Coronavirus Engagement Surge Team (CREST) 

The discovery of safe, effective vaccines against Covid-19 promises light at the end of a very long tunnel. But for whom? 

The past year has brought extreme hardship to many. Hundreds of millions – mainly women trapped in the least secure jobs – have been thrown out of work, and are staring down hunger and poverty. Many young people may drop out of school for good, with girls again most at risk.  

For others, however, the Covid-19 crisis has been an opportunity to strengthen their wealth and power. Pharmaceutical companies have already sold almost 70% of the expected 2021 vaccine doses to just a few rich countries. Unless bold action is taken now, the majority of the world’s people will have no escape from the Covid-19 nightmare anytime soon.

Money and profit shouldn’t determine who has access to treatment, and there are other, better ways to ensure everyone has a route out of this crisis. ActionAid is supporting calls for a People’s Vaccine – a vaccine that is available to all, in all countries, free of charge.  

During the HIV pandemic, ActionAid saw first-hand how intellectual property rules and other barriers artificially limited treatment supplies and pushed up prices, resulting in millions of needless deaths. We must not let history repeat itself. Pharmaceutical companies are receiving substantial amounts of taxpayer funding to develop vaccines. They must share data, technology and intellectual property through the UN’s COVID-19 Technology Pool (C-TAP), an open-source solution to ensure adequate and affordable supplies of vaccines for all countries. 

Within countries, governments must step in to ensure that need, not income or status, determines who's at the front of the queue for vaccines and treatment. Research shows that households often prioritise the needs of male family members when essential services like healthcare and education are not affordable. Women are also at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19, making up to 70% of the global health care force. Women and girls were already hardest hit during the pandemic - they, and other vulnerable groups, mustn’t lose out once again.

Any vaccination programme will only be effective if there are adequate health workers and infrastructure to roll it out. ActionAid’s Who Cares report shows that public health systems have been underfunded for a generation due to unfair austerity policies and tax rules that allow big companies to avoid paying their fair share.  

This is unacceptable at the best of times. In a pandemic, it is unimaginable. Tax reform and debt cancellation are urgently needed to refinance the public health systems of the world’s poorest countries and provide the investment needed to support the distribution of vaccines and treatment.  

In our globalised world, no country will be safe from Covid-19 until all countries and all people are protected. To end this devastating pandemic, we must put the interests of humanity ahead of corporate profits.