On March 11, 2020, the director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of “alarming levels of inaction” by governments in declaring that the COVID-19 outbreak had become a pandemic. Two years later, with several highly effective vaccines, we have the necessary tools to end this pandemic. But the complacency of some governments has only worsened.
Politicians in rich countries are trying to “get ahead” of the pandemic; to manipulate the emotional exhaustion of the public and tell them what they want to hear: that this pandemic is over. They want to pretend that COVID-19 is a problem of the past, a problem of the poorest countries. That notion is as foolhardy as it is false.
With tens of thousands of new coronavirus deaths and infections in low- and middle-income countries every day, the pandemic is far from over for the global south. The true death toll from COVID-19 in low-income countries is four times higher than in rich nations. These are not abstract statistics, these are our friends, our relatives, our loved ones. To say that we are in a “post-COVID” era is to erase their deaths.
After a brutal 22-month closure, schools in Uganda are finally reopening. While they were closed, many school-age girls got married and had children. In the first 18 months of the pandemic, some 650,000 teenage girls became pregnant in Uganda. Many will never return to education. For their sake, the reopening of societies in the global south is essential.
However, removing restrictions will accelerate the spread of COVID-19 among unvaccinated populations. And, as scientists have repeatedly warned, each infection presents the risk of worrying new variants that could threaten our remarkable progress in fighting the virus. That, in turn, could prolong the pandemic and all the associated suffering.
We have heard the well-rehearsed phrase that “no one is safe until everyone is safe” from leaders of the global north. However, after two years, we have seen little evidence that they are serious. At regular intervals, wealthy governments issue press releases announcing donations of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines. However, they do not mention that dose donations are sporadic, sometimes close to expiration, and do not correspond to the needs of low- and middle-income countries.
Like many of the world’s crises, we would be in a better place in this pandemic if we had listened to the countries most affected by vaccine inequity. There remains enormous untapped capacity to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, tests and treatments in the global south. At least 120 unused facilities are capable of manufacturing mRNA vaccines.
And why aren’t those producers helping us end the pandemic? Because rich countries have allowed drug companies to block prescriptions behind a wall of patents and trade secrets, all to protect the rights of billionaire CEOs to generate eye-popping profits.
There have been notable efforts by low- and middle-income countries to break these monopolies and gain access to the necessary tools to fight COVID-19. In South Africa, a WHO-led consortium of manufacturers has successfully developed a version of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine that was first sequenced by Moderna and the US National Institutes of Health with a phenomenal injection of public funds. .
To the credit of the US government, they have now shared the publicly owned aspects of this technology with the WHO. Moderna, however, has refused. The company has even filed patents in South Africa, despite a public promise that it would not enforce patents on its COVID-19 vaccine.
The WHO plans to use mRNA technology as a basis for making vaccines against other diseases, building long-term health sovereignty in Africa. But Moderna’s patents could derail the project entirely.
Not surprisingly, low- and middle-income countries have sought to suspend patents and other intellectual property regulations on COVID-19 vaccines, treatments, and associated technologies. In October 2020, South Africa and India proposed a temporary exemption from a global intellectual property agreement at the World Trade Organization (WTO) for these tools. As the world became aware of the huge barrier these rules pose, the United States, Australia and more than 100 other countries have pledged to support a waiver.
However, some wealthy governments have led a campaign to derail this solution. Despite the overwhelming support for the waiver, the WTO operates through consensus, which it cannot reach without the support of all countries. Millions of people have died while rich nations have plodded toward the solution demanded by low- and middle-income countries themselves.
Early in the pandemic, I joined more than 100 former world leaders, humanitarians, and Nobel Prize-winning scientists in calling for a Popular Vaccine, free of patents and speculation, accessible to everyone, everywhere. Our call, however, remains unanswered. After two years, we once again call on world leaders to put aside the self-defeating nationalism that has plagued the global fight against COVID-19.
That requires finally ending the impasse over intellectual property rules that prevents the world from coming to a just and equitable end to the pandemic. We must save the WHO goal of vaccinating 70% of people by mid-2022 with a deep sense of urgency. And we must build the public research and development infrastructure needed to ensure a more equitable response to the next global health crisis, based on solidarity and cooperation.
In a world wracked by war, climate crisis, and economic peril, it may seem convenient to ignore the continuing spread of COVID-19 in the global south. However, the warning from scientists has been clear and consistent; ignore the health of other nations at your own peril. This pandemic will not be over for any of us until it is over for all of us. After two years, it is time for the leaders of the global north to do so.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.