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Zornio: The geographical privilege of denying COVID-19 vaccines

As anti-vaxxers in rich nations shun the COVID vaccine shot, many in poor nations are dying for access

For years Marc Bernier was a prominent conservative radio host. Based in Daytona, Florida, the self-appointed “Mr. Anti-Vax” regularly dedicated time on his show encouraging listeners to reject the COVID-19 vaccine.

A few weeks after publicly declaring “I’m not taking it,” the station announced that their talk show personality had died of the very disease he refused to protect himself against.

Bernier is one of many Republican martyrs, frequently men, who have sacrificed their lives for the anti-vaccine movement. Despite having ample access to a variety of cutting-edge vaccines, his legacy of peddling dangerous misinformation survives him.

Trish Zornio (Photo by Holly Hursley Photography)

To this day, many followers still defy all logic, refusing the vaccine even after countless prominent deaths. In many ways, this paradox of refusal in the presence of abundance is a uniquely American experience; or, at least, unique to those in wealthier nations. 

Since the prospect of developing vaccines for Sars-CoV-2 took hold, there have been concerns for equitable, global vaccine distribution. In April 2020, the World Health Organization joined forces with the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and Gavi to found Covax. The mission was simple: Assist in the rapid development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines with fair and equitable methods worldwide. 

The effort held potential for success. 

The U.S. has now pledged over one billion doses, and several other nations have joined in the efforts to subsidize vaccines for lower income nations. In theory, this ensures low-income nations do not suffer more than high-income nations — a pillar of human rights — and addresses the underlying reality of a pandemic; “no one is safe, unless everyone is safe.”

Of course, human nature is rarely utopian. 

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Even as pledges poured in, wealthier nations independently pursued direct purchases with vaccine manufacturers. This effectively bypassed any possibility for equitable distribution, and Covax organizers say pledges are not the same as doses received. Even the doses that have been acquired were sent in small shipments near expiration, making them difficult or impossible to distribute. 

Predictably this has resulted in the wealthiest nations having far more access to the vaccines than those with less in their piggy banks. Fifty countries are now reported to have missed the goal of at least 10% fully vaccinated by the end of September, according to the WHO.

Many of these nations are located in Africa, which has a 4.4% total population vaccination rate, with only 15 of 54 countries surpassing the 10%. Other nations reported to have missed the target include Vietnam, Taiwan, Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Iraq. 

The discrepancy of vaccine equity among health care workers is particularly outrageous. Only two in five health care workers are estimated to be vaccinated globally, however this again masks wealth inequities. African regions hold an average of less than one in 10 health care workers receiving vaccines, while over 80% are vaccinated in high-income nations.

Given the sacrifice these workers face, and the millions of vials often tossed in the trash in places like America, the sheer ability to refuse life-saving care marks a distinct privilege of national wealth — not personal freedom — in being afforded the opportunity of choice at all.

Low-income countries have not been immune to vaccine hesitancy. The president of Tanzania, for example, decried vaccinations early on, stating, “Vaccinations are dangerous. If the white man was able to come up with vaccines, he should have found a vaccine for AIDS by now.”

This sentiment was brief as the new president welcomed the technology earlier this year. Yet even with acceptance, few overall gains have been made. Residents today remain largely unable to access vaccines or basic testing, again highlighting the privilege in even having a choice to access.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Stepping foot on foreign soil has a way of changing your perspective, particularly when it comes to politics. In absence of physical travel, there is international news and data.

While some stateside residents might suggest that we look out for our own first, our patriotic duty cannot be defined solely by the actions within our borders. Especially amid a global pandemic, our success is directly tied to the success of others. 

In this light, Americans must reckon with the distinct privilege of national wealth that impedes gains abroad — particularly by those who refuse vaccination — and accept that our actions ultimately increase the likelihood of a vaccine-evading variant landing back on our shores.


Trish Zornio is a scientist, lecturer and writer who has worked at some of the nation’s top universities and hospitals. She’s an avid rock climber and was a 2020 candidate for the U.S. Senate in Colorado.


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