by Earl Bousquet
August was definitely not august to those following the path of the COVID-19 Pandemic’s global destruction through the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the Delta variant, or the widening vaccine-distribution gap between North and South.
Or the lack of responses by the world’s richest nations to repeated and ongoing calls by the World Health Organization (WHO) and international stakeholders to start delivering on their outstanding promises to share a billion extra vaccines with poor countries, from their vast stockpiles.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this year described the widening global distribution inequality as ‘Vaccine Apartheid’, with rich nations dominating vaccine purchases and hoarding over-supplies while Africa basically remained without.
The Americas – including North, Central and South, as well as the CARICOM group — united by language, history and geography, also faced increasing COVID pressures 16 months after the pandemic was declared.
And even while vaccination levels were higher than regional average in Cuba — the only Caribbean nation producing its own WHO-approved vaccines — infection rates there also accelerated after the Delta variant landed in Havana.
August opened with the plight of developing countries already highlighted three months earlier by an international independent panel appointed to examine the global situation and make recommendations to the WHO and the United Nations (UN), respectively.
In May, the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPPR), co-chaired by former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and ex-Australian Prime Minister Helen Clarke, made its first presentation to the World Health Assembly (WHA), outlining lessons learnt from the international response to COVID-19.
Then on July 28, the IPPPR reported to the UN General Assembly, again recommending that rich nations start delivering the promised vaccines.
The IPPPR actually made a double-dose prescription: (1) that ‘high-income countries ensure at least one billion doses of vaccines, available to them…’ (from their stockpiles) are redistributed to 92 low-and-middle-income countries by September 1, 2021; and (2) that another billion doses (also from stockpiles) be delivered by mid-2022.
The panel reported that only 89 million vaccine doses had been delivered to the 92 countries identified – still a very far cry from the needs of the five billion people 15-years-and-over living in the developing world.
The panel told the UN: ‘Ensuring that all those around the world most vulnerable to the impact of the virus, including healthcare workers, older people and those with significant comorbidities, can be vaccinated quickly, is a critical step towards curbing the pandemic.’
With vaccination rate across Africa at only 3%, the IPPPR also urged the North to help save millions of lives in the South by helping the latter develop their own vaccine manufacturing capacities.
The North continued to ignore both the loud calls for vaccines and manufacturing technology transfer to the South, governments more concerned with preserving and protecting patent rights and allowing private sector profits to dominate over protection and preservation of lives.
Ignoring their own scientists’ consistent warnings – for over a year – that as long as poor nations in the South remained unvaccinated rich countries remained at risk, the North instead concentrated on the political, social and economic effects of the spread of the virus within their borders.
Never mind the earlier progress boasted on both sides of The Atlantic, Delta was also seriously reversing vaccination progress, even as Vaccine Refusal, Hesitance and Mistrust continued sending more Europeans and Americans to hospital – and their graves.
The sheer numbers quickly forced the government to focus where they hadn’t: on the unvaccinated, who remained the highest at risk – and risky to the community.
Completely immersed in tending to their crises at home, the Northern nations best-able to make a difference simply continued to ignore the IPPPR’s appeals for global responses that will extend beyond their shores and last beyond this pandemic.
Vaccine Nationalism and Pandemic Profiteering did cause frictions within Europe earlier this year, when the manufacturing companies were accused by the EU of concentrating more on delivering to top-dollar nations outside the bloc, resulting in Brussels taking Oxford-AstraZeneca to court for not delivering vaccines on-time and in-full, as per agreements.
But the governments and companies in the North also always found common ground against the South – as with South Africa and India after they applied in June for relaxation of copyright restrictions to allow them to produce vaccines.
Profits had never been bigger — and the pharmaceutical companies were definitely not about to cut their hefty and expanding margins to supply free vaccines to non-paying countries.
Profits flowing like liquid gold through their global distribution pipelines, the companies (and governments) worked overtime to find reasons to keep the hoarded vaccines, loudly calling for ways and means to ensure they were better-used at home, instead of distributed-freely abroad.
‘Third-jabs’ vs ‘Lifejackets’
Thus was born the idea of a ‘booster jab’ through an added third-dose for persons already double-vaccinated, promoted by Pfizer and quickly approved by US regulators in mid-August.
But even so, the WHO continued to plead, loudly and frequently, for the third-dose rollouts to be put on hold until the end of September, to allow the North to start delivering on the outstanding promises.
The North so-very-short on delivery and vaccination rates below 10% in most developing nations, Executive Director of the WHO’s COVID Emergency Program, Mike Ryan, graphically argued that offering third doses to fully-vaccinated people was like ‘throwing lifejackets to people who already have two, while others without any were drowning …’
Ryan also urged the rich to use the recommended grace-period to implement the IPPPR’s recommendations.
But US Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy argued the third jabs were necessary because of the ‘low inefficacy’ of existing vaccines.
Walking the Talk…
The EU boasted in mid-August it had reached over-70% vaccination levels, while the US lapsed far behind, forcing the Biden administration to toughen-the-talk and start walking-the-walk on issues such as mandating compliance with protocols.
Delta numbers and case-loads rising, hospitals running out of ICU beds and predictions the next COVID-19 variant could be like ‘Delta on Steroids’, rich nations, unable to buy their way out of the pandemic, quickly started shifting gear and changing language, the narrative switching (almost overnight) from ‘encouragement’ and ‘persuasion’ to ‘mandating’.
Europe started talking about introducing COVID passports for entry to bars, restaurants, salons, hotels and other close-contact locations, with vaccinations also being ‘required’ for frontline health workers.
The rich nations were quietly but quickly substituting ‘incentivizing’ with national and federal mandates.
The crisis staring the US in the face could no longer be ignored, forcing White House officials to warn unvaccinated people they both ‘threatening yourselves and putting others at risk’, some ditching communications protocol and advising the un-vaccinated to ‘Get the damned vaccine!’
Indeed, the US President showed every sign that from the Science and Numbers, given all the medical advisors said and what he saw, while the world was looking on in disbelief, the worst was yet to come.
CARICOM leaders were shaken by events of August 17, 2021 when St. Vincent and the Grenadines Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves’ was wounded in the head by a rock pelted at close range by an enraged protester at an opposition-organized protest outside parliament.
The violent attack on the Vincentian PM while MPs discussed government proposals to mandate vaccination for certain public officers sent shudders through some CARICOM leaders’ spines.
Similar but smaller protests followed in Antigua & Barbuda and Barbados, but the politicization of the pandemic tended to be under-reported in the regional press, perhaps more out of shame than pride.
Trust and Mistrust…
August also underlined the high levels of Vaccine Hesitance across Latin America and the Caribbean was not all or only the result of planted mistrust of Science.
Instead, it had more to do with mistrust of the available vaccines (mainly Oxford-AstraZeneca and Pfizer) vis-a-vis the five produced by Cuba that many across The Americas have opted to risk waiting for instead of taking the available jabs.
The wait for the Cuban vaccines has been rather long, Havana having opted to go the entire haul with trials in-full and at-home before deciding to market them.
But Cuba too suffered its setbacks in July and August after the Delta variant landed in Havana, the island’s government also forced to combat what it described as externally-generated street protests against the effects of pandemic through Cuban exiles in Florida orchestrated by the US State Department.
Likewise confronted by the Numbers and the Science and faced with the challenges of the rising hospitalizations and death tolls, Caribbean leaders also opted to start acting in earnest to take the proverbial COVID bull by its virtual horns.
Trinidad & Tobago’s Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley made it clear that with vaccination levels too-low in the twin-island republic, his government was ‘considering taking measures to encourage a greater level of vaccinations…’
He also said that with ‘unvaccinated children’ also at risk, his administration ‘will have no choice but to intervene on behalf of the children who cannot make their own minds up – and parents not ready to’ like most had traditionally done ‘so many times before’ for ‘Mums, Measles and Rubella, Polio…’ and many other earlier viruses.
Even so, he also promised his government had ‘no plans’ to impose an all-out vaccinations mandate.
Following the Science…
Just a month after the July poll and the island yet to complete the administrative transition, new Saint Lucia Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre pledged his administration will ‘Follow the Science’ — and ‘The Numbers’ — in responding to the worsening effect of a fourth COVID wave inherited by his administration.
The new administration immediately announced several changes in the national fight against COVID, promising to be more persuasive than obligatory.
Pierre had argued, for example, that the aggressing policing and enforcement of the protocols by police officers and members of a special COVID Constabulary pursuing violators across fields and into churches, was undesirable.
Police officers were also increasingly attracting COVID during their physical policing of the protocols, leading to the new government’s amendment of the COVID Emergency Act to replace arrests and physical policing interactions with ticketing offenses.
But the UWP, now less than a month in opposition after 16 months trying to bring COVID under control, was now accusing the brand-new administration of everything from responding ‘too slow’, to ‘encouraging protocol violations’ by decriminalizing violations and expunging such record from citizens’ police records.
Marching Ides of August…
But as the month ended, it was crystal-clear that even while most leaders had their eyes fixed on the social, political and economic implications of their handling of the pandemic, they were all also very aware that until and unless they start doing more to get non-vaccinated persons to take a jab, the entire region would be heading into a September to Remember.
The onward march of the COVID Ides of August indeed left CARICOM leaders clearly divided on whether to commit to mandate vaccinations in the national health interest.
For many, it was a politically unhealthy choice, but it was still quickly emerging as one all would have to face, one way or another, one day or the other, sooner or later…
Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of St Lucia Times.