COVAX Failures Highlight The West’s Neo-Colonial Hypocrisy

In a press release published on 28 July U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab announced that the U.K. will deliver 9 million COVID-19 vaccines to “the most vulnerable countries” to help tackle the pandemic. This batch of vaccines is the first part of a pledge by the government to donate 100 million surplus jabs before the middle of 2022. Countries receiving the vaccine include Kenya, Jamaica, and Indonesia.

The majority of doses will be delivered through the COVAX program, which aims to provide vaccines for 92 low or medium-income countries. However, the program, often praised as a light at the end of the tunnel, has failed the developing world and highlights the neo-colonial power structures that continue to benefit richer countries. The world is witnessing a handful of countries streak ahead in the fight against the pandemic, vaccinating their own people and leaving many of the world’s most vulnerable populations behind.

There was a good plan to vaccinate the world, but wealthy countries blocked it. Earlier this year, documents leaked to the BBC showed rich nations, including the U.K., United States, and Canada, went against all humanitarian and public health principles. They blocked proposals to help developing countries increase their capacity to manufacture vaccines.

COVAX’s secret agreements with vaccine manufacturers have ruled out transparency and reduced public trust in the facility. Severe underfunding and vaccine hoarding are some of the issues that have hampered the program’s goals to vaccinate the world. According to vaccine equity campaigners, the U.K.’s pledge to donate vaccines is “shamefully inadequate.” They were among the rich countries who blocked efforts to waive intellectual property rules on COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

When COVAX was created, the rollout was intended to be divided into two groups: higher income countries self-sponsoring the vaccines, and lower income countries who would have their vaccines subsidized through aid. The vaccine’s inequitable rollout has highlighted that wealthy nations prioritizing their own diplomatic and commercial interests have effectively destroyed COVAX’s goal of fair and equal access to COVID-19 vaccines.

“[T]he fact that Gavi’s board is now reviewing the way in which wealthier countries can continue to participate in the facility is in part a recognition that the set-up does not work,” said Kate Elder, senior policy adviser at Medicins Sans Frontieres. COVAX is currently facing major procurement issues, especially since India fell short in mid-April due to export controls, leaving the facility struggling to meet its commitments.

The continued paternalism and colonial mindset demonstrated by COVAX and the handful of rich countries who have monopolized the vaccine, is a stark reminder that aid does not always work. Amid vaccine nationalism and what the People’s Vaccine Alliance call “vaccine apartheid,” countries in the Global North continue to hold countries considered “third world” at the mercy of donations and performances of white saviourism. All this occurs while turning a blind eye to the root causes of inequality, and the U.K.’s vaccine donation is an example of this.

The major obstacle for global vaccine access isn’t just about supply constraints. It’s also about manufactured barriers created by rich countries, such as the refusal to waive intellectual property rights on vaccines. Refusing to support the waiver on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual property is a prime example of the Global North’s neo-colonial gatekeeping of Big Pharma’s supply chains and profits.

Countries like Kenya have budgetary allocations for the vaccine roll out. However, rich nations have blocked fair access to vaccines by purchasing them all and hoarding them in huge quantities, waiting to send them out – close to expiration- to lower income countries. As demonstrated by Dominic Raab’s recent press release, using aid to boost a country’s public image distracts from the fact many countries receiving the donations lack the infrastructure to deliver and inoculate the intended populations before vaccines expire.

According to Nanjala Nyabola, a political analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya, “[W]e are setting up African countries to fail with leftover vaccines. This should never have happened – if the vaccines were made available to purchase fairly none of this would even arise.”

COVAX’s failure to meet its goal of an equitable rollout of vaccines demonstrates need for African states, and other developing countries to insist on their right to manufacture and possibly develop vaccines. For there to be a fair and equal distribution, we must see radical policy change that will knock down the barriers to sharing medical technologies at the global level.

Anita Mureithi