Vaccine apartheid threatens everyone

February 11, 2021
People lining up for COVID-19 vaccination in New Jersey in January.

In the United States, the latest wave of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalisations and deaths rose to new heights in the first days of January.

Within weeks, total deaths will reach half a million since the pandemic began. More than 95,000 deaths occurred in January alone, almost 20% of the total.

This spike was attributed to travel, partying and large gatherings over Christmas and New Year, when large numbers of people disregarded the imperative to wear masks and observe safe distancing.

New cases have begun to decline from their peak (at more than three times the height of the previous wave). Hospitalisations, which reached levels beyond capacity in many cities, have begun to lessen. Deaths will take longer to decline.

These declines can be attributed to many states and cities reimposing new restrictions.

However, some are already relaxing these rules. If this develops as it did in the first two waves, we can expect a levelling off of new cases, and then a new upturn in the next period.

Vaccinations are the key to containing COVID-19. Scientists know that viruses mutate at a high rate. Most mutations don’t change much how the virus acts, but some do, and for the worse.

One new mutation, first discovered in Britain, is now rapidly spreading in the US. (It may have originated here — we don’t know because of the poor state of testing).

This variant is much more contagious, and will soon become the most prevalent in the US and across the world.

Another variant, first discovered in South Africa and spreading across the continent, may be resistant to at least some of the available vaccines.

As new cases continue, there will be new mutations, because the virus mutates as it reproduces within infected cells.

The only way to stop this and prevent other new dangerous variants from appearing is through mass vaccination of the majority of the world’s population.

There are nowhere near enough vaccinations being done in the US, and the situation is worse internationally.

An aspect of this situation is vaccination apartheid.

Vaccine apartheid in the US

It became apparent soon after the pandemic began that African American and Latino populations had disproportionately higher cases, higher hospitalisations and higher death rates than whites.

For the first time, many Americans were made aware that this is due to the worse conditions for non-whites in health services, higher unemployment, lower wages and economic conditions, poor housing, transportation, homelessness and more.

This began to reveal to sections of the public that underneath it all was systematic, institutionalised racial oppression.

The Black Lives Matter movement reinforced growing awareness of this, beginning with police murders and general attacks including arrests that funnelled into mass incarceration of Blacks and Latinos.

This overall oppression is now being added to through vaccination apartheid.

The Pfizer and Moderna approved vaccines are in short supply, “since private-sector supply chains and current manufacturing capacity cannot meet this demand,” wrote Mya Shone in the Organizer.

“This requires setting priorities and rationing vaccine distribution. Even while health care workers and residents were the obvious [first] priority, vaccinations to date demonstrate an inverse proportion between community deaths and who is getting vaccinated.

Shone cited three examples highlighting the problem: the Black population of Washington, DC; Black and Latino residents of Dallas, Texas; and New York state prisoners, who are overwhelmingly people of colour.

“Washington, DC is divided into eight wards (districts): Ward 2 has a population that is 81% white and that of Ward 3 is 64% white. These wards are the most affluent, while Wards 7 and 8, each with 92% Black residents are among the poorest,” wrote Shone.

“As of January 15, there were 42 deaths from COVID-19 in Ward 2 as well as in Ward 3, while the death tolls in Wards 7 and 8 reached 128 and 162, respectively.

“Yet once the vaccine program began, Wards 7 and 8 had the lowest vaccine appointments booked [197 and 94 appointments, respectively], while the affluent white wards had the highest [1274 and 2465].”

In Texas, vaccine distribution sites are more commonly located in white neighbourhoods. “Yet the state came down hard on Dallas County Commissioners”, Shone wrote, “who voted to prioritise the limited number of vaccines [available] to the public health system, a portion of which were to be used at a distribution center serving mostly Black and Latino neighbourhoods disproportionally hard-hit by the pandemic.

“Even this limited attempt at a more equitable distribution was scuttled after the Texas Department of State Health Services, responsible for vaccine distribution, threatened to reduce the weekly vaccine allocation to Dallas County Health and Human Services and no longer designate it a ‘hub provider’ [unless it stopped the plan].”

One in five state and federal prisoners has tested positive for the virus, a rate four times that of the general population. Prisoners are twice as likely to die from the virus compared with the general population. Blacks and Latinos make up a majority of prisoners.

Twelve prisoners died of COVID-19 in recent weeks in the New York state prison and jail systems, said Shone, “outpacing the rate from the early days of the pandemic”.

“How could it be otherwise given the congested living conditions, the prevalence of underlying health conditions, and the rationing and denial of health care?”

Yet, when New York announced new vaccine guidelines, the nearly 50,000 prisoners in the state weren’t mentioned.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 60% of those vaccinated in January were whites, while 11.5% were Latinos, 6% were Asian, and just over 5% were Blacks.

One epicentre of the virus has been in the large Latino population in Los Angeles. Deaths in this community jumped 1000% from November through January.

Dr David-Hayes Bautista, director of the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA School of Medicine, told Democracy Now!: “What we are seeing is about 150 years of medical neglect of Latino amongst other communities.

“We didn’t consider them as essential workers. We didn’t provide them personal protective equipment. They rarely have health insurance anyway, [are] very low wage[d], so the coronavirus was able to eat its way through them very quickly.”

“The vaccination rate is very, very low in California amongst Latinos and most populations of colour.”

International vaccine divide

The world is divided between the imperialist powers, often referred to in the capitalist press as “advanced countries”, and the large majority of countries that are oppressed and exploited by the imperialists, often called “low income” or “developing countries”.

As may be expected, there is a great divide between the imperialist and oppressed nations concerning vaccinations.

This worldwide vaccine divide is very striking between the apartheid state of Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza it rules over.

While Israel has made big strides in inoculating its citizens, it has rejected providing vaccines to Palestinians. Recently, it agreed to let 5000 doses into the West Bank and Gaza for health care workers, due to international outrage, but this is hardly enough for 5 million Palestinians.

As of late January, the West African nation of Guinea was the only “low income” country to have begun vaccinating, using Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

“Together, Britain, Canada, the United States and the European Union have purchased the lion’s share of the global vaccine supply,” reported the Washington Post on January 26.

In nearly 70 “low income” countries, 90% of the population will not be inoculated this year, according to Amnesty International, Oxfam and other organisations making up the People’s Vaccine Alliance.

Most people in most countries will not be vaccinated for years, unless there is a drastic change of course.

“Many developing countries, from Bangladesh to Tanzania to Peru, will likely have to wait until 2024 before fully vaccinating their populations,” wrote the New York Times on January 25.

Africa has been especially hard hit by the virus. In South Africa, vaccinations had to be halted because the new variant discovered there is resistant to the Astra Zeneca vaccine. This mutant form will spread. What will be the impact on other vaccines?

Russia, China and Cuba have or will soon have vaccines. Can these fill the gaps due to the imperialist countries having bought up so much of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines?

In any case, the imperialist powers must step up and provide vaccines for the 85% of the “developing” world.

This is not only a moral imperative. To not do so will boomerang back on them.

Vaccinations must reach all the peoples of the world, or COVID-19 will continue to spread, and with continued spread there will be continual mutations and the threat of more dangerous variants, including those that resist current vaccines.

As John Nkengasong, director of the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says, the world faces “a moral catastrophe” without vaccine equity: “It has to be very clear that no part of the world will be safe until all parts of the world are safe.”

“We either come out of this together or we go down together. There is no middle ground.”

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