Omicron the latest variety of the Covid-19 variant first detected in southern African nations is sending the world into a tailspin. Governments across the world riding on the back of available vaccines were confident that the health crisis was now under control. Nations began opening up and economic activities were taking off once again. But the bad news from South Africa of a new more deadly variant that had the capacity of multiple mutations has come as a blow to hopes of a revival. Panic has set in with several countries including the US, UK, Australia, and Japan either halting flights from the eight nations of Africa or imposing institutional quarantine for travellers from these countries.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown hit the nail on the head when he squarely blamed the rich nations for grabbing and hoarding vaccines without ensuring equitable distribution.
"Despite the repeated warnings of health leaders, our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us.” Brown wrote in an opinion piece for the Guardian newspaper. He is an ambassador for WHO and has long been urging the western nations to share vaccines instead of buying double the requirement of their population. Many of these countries had also not donated the doses promised to the UN for distribution.
The result is most African countries have not been able to access vaccines and remain exposed. Despite repeated warnings by WHO that the rich nations have the responsibility to provide vaccines to those unable to access the vaccines if they wished to remain safe in today’s interconnected world. The WHO had been warning the world about this from the very beginning when the vaccine trials began. In fact, the UN put in place the mechanism for collection and distribution of the vaccine, with the responsibility on the rich to pay for and provide the vaccines.
It was apparent to the health officials at the UN that to end the pandemic it was not enough to have the Covid-19 vaccines but to make sure that everyone in the world has access to them. This resulted in a unique global collaboration under a program called the COVAX. The efforts were coordinated by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the collation for epidemic preparedness innovation, and the WHO. The idea was to ensure that all countries, regardless of income levels, would have equal access to vaccines. The initial aim was to have two billion doses available by the end of 2021, calculated to be enough to protect high risk and vulnerable people.
But as soon as vaccines were available countries like the US, UK, France, Germany, Canada, and the rest of the Western group grabbed as much as they could. It was only after their own citizens had both the doses that they began contributing to the COVAX pool.
India initially did a good job by contributing to COVAX and at the same time going ahead with its own vaccine diplomacy to win goodwill in the neighbourhood and across areas where it had development programs. But the second deadly wave put a stop to all exports as the government was reeling under the impact of thousands of deaths. Now India is in a much better position having provided one dose at least to most of its adult citizens. India is gradually starting to send in some quantities of the vaccines to other nations and hopes to re-start its vaccine maitrey diplomacy soon. India like other nations was also gradually getting back to normal life. It had announced allowing international flights from December 15. But now with the new variant, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for a review. Travel ban in the US has been imposed on eight countries- South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, and Namibia.
It is too early to come to a conclusion on Omicron, evidence at the moment is not enough to draw any conclusion. It will take a few days for exact nature of the new variant to be available. The WHO has called it a variant of ``concern.’’ The world is holding its breath and nations getting ready to tackle this new danger. New York governor Kathy Hochul has warned, ``….while the new Omicron variant is yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming.’’ This is the level of panic across the world. Instead of this if the rich nations would stop grabbling available vaccines and be generous enough to ensure that the African continent get its supplies, perhaps the current nervousness could have been avoided. There is a lesson here for the world that you cannot insulate your people in today’s global village.