By Matiangai Sirleaf
In January 2021, Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS warned, “We are witness to a vaccine apartheid that is only serving the interests of powerful and profitable pharmaceutical corporations while costing us the quickest and least harmful route out of this crisis.” With the recent news of Omicron’s emergence as a variant of concern, these words and the countless others informing us of the dangers of vaccine apartheid could not be more prescient.
Vaccine apartheid as a concept calls attention to the effects of inequitable vaccine distribution policies on historically subordinated peoples. Vaccine apartheid has meant that people living in many countries in the Global South are being denied significant doses of vaccines. Some reports indicate that “for every 100 people in high-income countries, 133 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been administered, while in low-income countries, only 4 doses per 100 people have been administered.” Using vaccine apartheid to characterize this state of affairs is important because it troubles, and renders suspect, the use of terms like vaccine nationalism to describe countries hoarding enough supplies to vaccinate their populations several times over.
The euphemism of vaccine nationalism conveniently papers over the racialized distributional consequences of vaccine inequities. In “Disposable Lives: COVID-19, Vaccines and the Uprising,” I analyze how racialized notions regarding which lives are expendable are reflected in inequitable vaccine access and how COVID-19 has heightened the visibility of the disposability with which society views the lives of people of color. This presumed disposability is reflected in the paltry number of vaccinations, with only about 7% of vaccination completed for the entire African continent. That this meager percentage represents just over half of the entire supply of vaccines to African countries to date is abysmal.
Picture: Prefeitura de Itapevi, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons