Arrington: Vaccinate Everyone

The COVID-19 crisis in India demonstrates the importance of the United States assisting in the international vaccine rollout.

by Katherine Arrington | 5/4/21 3:00am

With India now averaging more than one million new cases of COVID-19 every three days as well as thousands of deaths daily, the country is in the midst of one of the worst outbreaks that the world has seen during the pandemic. This crisis has only been compounded by the country’s weak national health care infrastructure, medical supply shortages and low vaccination rates — to date, only 2% of India’s population has been fully vaccinated.

India is not the only major country where vaccine rollout has been slow: Only 6.5% of Brazil’s population, 6% of Mexico’s population, and 3% of Canada’s population have been fully vaccinated. This is the case for many other developing countries as well — in Egypt, the Philippines and Venezuela, less than 1% of the population has been fully vaccinated. While most developed countries are projected to be almost fully vaccinated by the end of 2021, many developing countries will not be fully vaccinated until the end of 2022 or even the beginning of 2023. To help prevent another extreme wave of outbreaks due to viral variants, it is crucial that the United States steps in to assist in the vaccine rollout internationally, rather than continuing to put itself first.

Domestically, the United States has administered nearly a quarter of a billion doses of the vaccine – an astonishing 30.9% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, while 44.1% have received at least one dose. This is partially a result of President Biden’s decision to move up the deadline for U.S. states to make all residents eligible for the vaccine to April 19.Though the rollout has been unequal — marginalized communities face increased barriers to getting vaccinated and large swathes of the country, especially Republican men, remain vaccine-skeptical — the U.S. is still poised to have very low rates of COVID-19 transmission and hospitalizations soon, as the vast majority of the population should soon be vaccinated. Our attention should now turn to abroad, as herd immunity within the United States will not be enough if we want to see the current global health crisis finally come to an end.

The COVID-19 pandemic is by its very definition a global crisis — the English word “pandemic” stems from the Greek roots “pan” and “demos,” which translate to “all” and “people,” respectively. As such, the crisis we face is not one that can be solved by each country working alone. Even if all Americans were to be vaccinated tomorrow, the pandemic would continue, with the virus surviving and spreading in other parts of the world. Since vaccinated individuals are less likely to contribute to symptomatic and asymptomatic spread of COVID-19, the greater the proportion of vaccinated people in an area, the less likely it will be for the virus to be spread enough for a crisis to occur — especially one that would overwhelm medical facilities and drain supplies, resulting in many preventable deaths. Ending the pandemic thus will require the United States to expand the rollout of vaccines in every country, rather than focusing narrowly on the vaccination effort within its own borders.

Furthermore, it is not as though the U.S. would be making a large sacrifice — the United States certainly has the resources to help other countries in their vaccine rollouts. To date, the American government has secured more than one billion doses, enough to vaccinate its population twice over with plenty of doses to spare. Thus far, however, the U.S. has only sent health care supplies and raw materials to places in dire need of vaccines, such as India, rather than providing the vaccines themselves. Out of the tens of millions of doses of vaccines that the U.S. has in excess, they have only donated four million, and even then only to its neighbors of Canada and Mexico. There is no reason for the U.S. not to donate excess vaccines to other countries and to provide additional aid and help acquiring vaccines to countries who need it.

Assisting other countries in vaccine rollout would also prove profitable from an international relations standpoint. There is a clear precedent for providing aid to other countries in times of crisis: former President George W. Bush started an international plan for AIDS relief in 2003. After a tsunami wreaked havoc on South and Southeast Asia in 2004, the U.S. led a humanitarian aid campaign. Sending vaccines rather than merely medical supplies to countries struggling with overwhelming rates of COVID-19, such as India, could also help lead the world into a new age of international cooperation, which is necessary for solving future issues such as climate change.

What’s more, the American public is in favor of global vaccine donations. Surveys show that over half of Americans believe that the U.S. should immediately begin donating vaccines to other countries and recognize that global herd immunity is necessary to put an end to the pandemic. A survey from STAT and The Harris Poll also found that three-quarters of Americans support donating vaccines after all Americans who want to be vaccinated have been. We’re at that stage — anyone in the U.S. can schedule an appointment and get a shot, and beginning to donate will not change that. 

Despite these very good reasons for pivoting to help the rest of the world, the Biden administration has still maintained that it will not donate vaccines until every American who wants one has been inoculated. From a moral standpoint, hoarding vaccines for low-risk Americans while high-risk healthcare providers in developing countries go unprotected is wrong. Additionally, the United States’ role on the international stage cannot be limited to merely supporting the development of countries’ inadequate healthcare infrastructures and expecting them to become self-reliant. There simply is not the time for this sort of approach. As more and more individuals worldwide become infected with COVID-19, there is a greater chance that the virus will mutate, potentially prolonging the pandemic for years to come. Furthermore, the longer the pandemic lasts, the higher the economic costs, with developed countries such as the U.S. bearing the brunt of this added financial burden. The current public health emergency is not the time for the U.S. to watch as developing countries scramble to build adequate healthcare infrastructure or to point to institutions like the World Health Organization for guidance; immediate vaccine donations are needed from the United States.

The COVID-19 pandemic has already lasted over a year and taken nearly two million lives worldwide. The United States has the power to help end this global crisis and to stop it from needlessly taking more lives, and should thus feel an obligation to employ this power as soon as possible and work to ensure that everyone who wants a vaccine can receive one.