Small World: Vaccines and Equity in the Postcolonial World

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I’m sure I’m not alone when I express my excitement about how well vaccinations are going these days. The COVID-19 lockdown has been such a long, seemingly endless tunnel, and now we’re finally seeing the light! I’m filled with an optimism I haven’t felt in more than a year.

That being said, things are not so rosy throughout the world. Countries with less money and infrastructure are often unable to develop and manufacture vaccines, and this directly affects their citizens. At present, India has been hit with a fresh spike of COVID-19 cases, because despite its massive manufacturing capacity, the Indian government has had trouble with mass vaccine distribution. Additionally, like most of the world, India hasn’t had access to the higher-quality American vaccines, like Pfizer. Instead India has had to rely on the shoddier Astra-Zeneca vaccine, which is more widely available but has been plagued with side effects and credibility issues. 

As of April 23, something like 109 million Americans had been vaccinated, while fewer than 500,000 Angolan citizens had received even a single vaccine dose. So why is there such a heavy imbalance in vaccination rates across the world? 

There’s obviously no single reason. Poor leadership and conservative governments unwilling to impose lockdown measures often directly relate to ballooning COVID-19 cases, but when it comes to this conversation, there’s an elephant in the room: colonialism. 

A few centuries ago, when the nations of Europe had come to dominate the global south, they ran their colonies entirely for profit. Entire national economies were structured around the extraction of natural wealth and resources and their shipment back to Europe, and most national infrastructure was created for this purpose. Colonized countries were often kept purposefully divided, with colonial administrations pitting ethnic groups against each other and actively splitting up tribes in order to prevent unity from forming among indigenous peoples. 

As a direct result, the current national governments of the postcolonial world are unusually detached from the day-to-day lives of their citizens, both physically and morally. The physical infrastructure that interconnects the countries that were allowed to naturally develop is often absent in the countries that were not allowed to do so. A level of trust and a strong social contract between postcolonial governments and their constituents was also precluded by the divisive actions of European colonial administrations. The emphasis, to the exclusion of all else, of an economy driven by natural resource exports meant that many postcolonial nations never had the chance to fully industrialize. 

The stark contrast between the industrialized world of the west and the underdeveloped, under-resourced world of the south is a direct result of the white supremacist, parasitic legacy of European imperialism, which makes it all the more disgusting that even in this time of crisis, Western corporations like Pfizer and Moderna have lobbied their governments to refuse patent waivers, which would allow low income countries far greater access to life-saving, effective vaccines. The greed of unfettered Western capitalism has already broken this world. It can’t be allowed to continue.