Two years into the Covid-19 pandemic and in the midst of the most contagious wave yet, the global vaccination effort lags. On average, just 7% of people in low income countries—largely on the African continent—received vaccines. Most wealthy countries, many of which are liberal democracies, have average vaccination rates of 60% or higher.
Moreover, at the end of 2020 wealthy liberal democracies possessed approximately 800 million excess vaccine doses. Around 11 billion vaccines total have been produced worldwide thus far, theoretically more than enough to have gotten low-income countries over the World Health Organization’s 40% vaccination goal by the end of last year.
One persistent response to such inequalities in vaccine access and distribution has been a call to waive pharmaceutical patents for vaccines. There’s a case to be made for general reform of international patent law in case of global emergencies, but the call for intellectual property waivers began in earnest after vaccines were being distributed. Aside from a few exceptions like India, most low and middle-income countries simply lack the infrastructure to effectively manufacture vaccines. Whatever the benefits of future reforms, a waiver now—or even a year ago—wouldn’t come close to a comprehensive solution to the problem.
Since the beginning of 2021, the best answer was always going to be wealthy countries purchasing vaccines and distributing them to less wealthy countries, or by contributing money to COVAX, a pop-up international body that raises money to purchase and distribute vaccines. The problem is that wealthy countries are simply not meeting the benchmarks they said they would, preferring to hold onto the vaccines they purchased. The United States has done the most, donating about 350 million doses, but even that falls well short of its pledges. The European Union is even further behind. China is also performing badly. While it’s true that it’s not simply a matter of delivering vaccines directly to countries in need—as infrastructure and vaccine hesitancy also play roles—rich countries have proven unwilling to match demand with supply.
Every wealthy country should be doing its part, but it’s particularly shameful that liberal democracies are exacerbating what amounts to both a moral and practical crisis. It’s well known that low vaccination rates anywhere risks generating new variants. Many of the recent supply chain issues can be traced to COVID surges in key countries lacking vaccine access. About two billion doses are being produced per month; even if wealthy nations are hell-bent on possessing enormous reserves, they would be able to recoup them quickly after assisting their less fortunate counterparts.
But there’s another dimension to this problem that has gathered less attention than it should in the media. Wealthy liberal democracies are at the forefront of the liberal international order: the system of global relations that rests on a faith in human rights, political and economic openness, and cooperation for mutual benefit. At a time when confidence in such an order appears to be diminishing, it’s both foolish and immoral not to seize a relatively easy opportunity to show just how well democracy can work.Subscribe to Spectacles