Canadian media has been awash this week with images of smiling patients and workers being vaccinated with the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Finally, the beginning of the end of the pandemic may actually be here.
The vaccine is valuable political currency. Politicians have used the vaccine to advance their personal image during a volatile political moment. For Canadian premiers, the vaccine is both a distraction from the increasingly high infection and death rates announced daily, and also an excuse to not actually do much more to stop the spread. The vaccine will save us, after all.
Federally, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has put forward an image of a caring and competent leader who has purchased more than enough vaccines for us all. This undercut Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s attempt to try and make ‘Canada is at the back of the vaccine line’ a thing.
Journalists bit on the Conservative line and rushed to pharmaceutical representatives who assured Canadians that we aren’t at the back of any line. In fact, Canada was one of the first to pre-order Moderna’s vaccine, and is among the first in the world to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
But it’s not just these two vaccines. Canada has secured more doses per capita than any other country on the planet: 429 million doses from seven companies, enough to potentially vaccinate the entire population five times over.
All pandemics thrive on selfishness. Refusal to share, breakdowns in social solidarity and a me-first attitude are all antithetical to how to collectively survive a pandemic. When people who are vulnerable to infection remain so, it poses a risk to everyone. A successful campaign against COVID-19 either within a country or internationally requires intentional and important investments in collectivity and social solidarity.
This is why Canada’s domestic pandemic response has been so terrible. Rather than making these kinds of investments, governments have overseen the spread of COVID-19 among racialized and low-income communities, while white and higher income communities have been relatively safe. If this is how we organize public policy domestically, perhaps it isn’t surprising that Canada would do the same internationally.
The Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University, which is tracking how equitable vaccine distribution has been, is very critical of how Canada and other “high-income” countries have been approaching vaccine procurement.
In a December 11 analysis update, they wrote, “These direct deals made by high-income (and some middle-income) countries result in a smaller piece of the pie available for equitable global allocation. This pattern results in a majority of vaccines going to high-income countries and fewer doses available for low- and middle-income countries and for equity-focused partnerships like COVAX [which hopes to help vaccination efforts in lower-income countries.]”
Thanks to vaccine hoarding, researchers have estimated that nearly 70 poorer countries will only be able to vaccinate one in 10 people in 2021, meaning the pandemic (and subsequent health system strain) will go on for much longer than in wealthy countries.
The Liberals know this isn’t a good look, but also realize the vaccine will help protect their minority government from political attacks on all sides, and have chosen to hedge their bets by purchasing more vaccines than we actually need.
However, Canada’s shitty global citizenship doesn’t end with vaccine hoarding. Our leaders have also stood in the way of a motion submitted to the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) General Council that seeks to waive international intellectual property (IP) rights to allow for a COVID-19 vaccine to spread across the world faster.
Doctors Without Borders notes that the motion, moved by India and South Africa in October, and subsequently supported by other nations, including China, “would allow all countries to choose to neither grant nor enforce patents and other IP related to COVID-19 drugs, vaccines, diagnostics and other technologies for the duration of the pandemic, until global herd immunity is achieved.”
The motion was served in response to concerns that an initiative launched in May to encourage voluntary sharing of important vaccine information, including IP, technologies and data, didn’t have enough buy-in from WTO member countries.
Canada, standing in solidarity with other wealthy countries like the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, has said it won’t support the waiver motion, which is being debated at the WTO General Council today and tomorrow. This decision has caused deep concern among experts, who see the need to quickly bypass regular regimes to make these vaccines as accessible, and cheap, as possible.
In a November BMJ Global Health blog, researchers Belinda Townsend and Jordan D. Jarvis argued, “Quicker access to a new vaccine or treatment around the world would[:] facilitate faster global economic recovery through improved trade and ending of lockdowns; benefit health security to mitigate the spread of this highly infectious disease across countries; and, most importantly, save lives and reduce COVID morbidity for everyone regardless of the country they live in. The choice countries and WTO is making is simple – to prioritize people’s health, or profits.”
Canada’s vaccine hoarding and refusal to support the global call to make vaccines easier to manufacture and distribute should be a national shame. While the Conservatives are eager to exploit this to further a political strategy based on the popularity of greed, the NDP has been annoyingly quiet.
Without a voice that can condemn greed and champion the need for Canada to play a productive role in spreading around new COVID-19 vaccines, most Canadians simply won’t know what is being done in our name. We need to push past the vaccine photo-ops and demand that we do our part in the fight against this global, not just Canadian, pandemic.