The pledge of G7 countries to donate a billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to low-income countries has been praised by many as a unified front to intensify international efforts against the pandemic. But the question is whether this pledge will adequately address the deep gap between rich and poor countries’ access to vaccines.
Without an effective global vaccination plan, one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines could be just a drop in the ocean compared to the World Bank’s estimate of 11 billion doses needed to end the Covid-19 crisis globally.
The delay in global vaccination rollout is as much about the stockpiling of vaccines by the US, the UK and other rich countries as it is about lack of seriousness on the part of the Western leaders, who could have agreed to waive the intellectual property protection and other export-related regulation on an exceptional basis to allow developing countries to produce these vaccines themselves. Moreover, keeping China, India and Russia out of the global vaccine discussions will not strengthen global efforts against this global problem. An effective global vaccine regime should monitor the production, supply and distribution of all vaccines.
Delays in vaccination rollout are not only reversing development gains for millions but also deepening global inequality. The UN ‘Sustainable Development Report 2021’ estimates a loss of four million jobs globally, and about 120 million people falling back into extreme poverty. According to Mckinsey, a management consulting firm, women's jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the crisis than men’s. About 11.5 million migrant domestic workers, mostly women, have been left unpaid and stranded in the Middle East.
Nepal’s Covid-19 vaccines woes have been compounded not only by the global vaccine inequality, but also by its political crisis, failure in diplomacy, mismanagement, and corruption issues. The inefficiency in the procurement process, the rent-seeking behaviors of politicians and businesses, India’s own Covid-19 crisis, and China’s emphasis on non-disclosure agreements contributed to the delay of vaccine procurement. The non-transparent, uneven and unequal distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in the capital city and other parts of the country is also creating anger and frustration among people.
Nepal failed to effectively engage in vaccine diplomacy when it was hit by the second wave of ‘Covid-19 catastrophe’. With more than 8,000 new infections a day, Nepal’s health and humanitarian crisis was proportionally bigger than that of India, but Nepal failed to effectively mobilize its foreign missions to receive international support to address Nepal’s health and humanitarian crisis. Initially, the Prime Minister of Nepal, instead of asking for global support, was even claiming that the situation was under control.
Although belated, Nepal engaged its President to write letters to foreign leaders for vaccines, but except China, no other country has yet replied. In particular, Nepal has failed to convince India that the delay in supplying the second dose of vaccines has fueled anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal with the perception that India might be more interested in Nepal’s political crisis than its health crisis.
Nepal has so far received 4.2 million doses of Covishield vaccine from India and 1.8 million doses of Vero Cell vaccine from China. Some of those who have taken the first dose of Covishield are still waiting for the second dose after many weeks. The government is finally planning to purchase four million doses of Vero Cell vaccine, but it is too little, too late for a population of 30 million. According to many epidemiologists, 60-70 percent of the population needs to acquire resistance to safely achieve herd immunity against Covid-19. Thus Nepal should immediately increase the number of vaccine doses to be procured from China to at least 10 million (one-third of Nepal’s population).
Moreover, Nepal should also use its effective diplomacy to secure enough doses of AstraZeneca and Covishield vaccines for those who have taken the first dose of Covishield or for those above 64 who are yet to get the first shot. (Vero Cell has not been recommended for those above 64.) Nepal should also actively engage to secure as many doses of vaccines as possible from the US and UK-announced vaccine pledges.
What we learned from the first and second waves of Covid-19 is that if we cannot manage the pandemic, we cannot prevent the humanitarian and economic crises. Nepal currently seems to have fallen into a vicious cycle of Covid-19 pandemic and economic despair. Covid-19 has exacted humanitarian and economic costs on the society, while Nepal is also experiencing severe financing gaps due to the economic downturn.
Sustainable and resilient recovery from Covid-19 will require a deliberate effort to accomplish three main goals within the next 6-12 months. First, vaccines, vaccines and vaccines. Nepal needs enough vaccines to cover at least 60 percent of its population within the next six months to prevent the next wave of Covid-19 pandemic.
Second, Nepal’s health infrastructure needs to be urgently revamped so that the country has the capacity, infrastructure, and human resources to effectively handle and manage any future pandemic. It is time to upgrade state-run hospitals and make them well equipped with enough manpower, oxygen, ventilators, ICUs, ISO certified testing labs, adequate number of beds, and specialized viral and communicable diseases units. All measures announced in the new federal and provincial budgets regarding the prevention, control, testing, and treatment of Covid-19 need to be properly and timely implemented. The main issue is whether the allocated budget can be spent to upgrade Nepal’s health infrastructure given a significant gap between policies and their implementation.
Third, Nepal’s economic recovery both in formal and informal sectors remains fragile and uncertain. Almost all small, medium and large-scale businesses, such as hotels, trekking, travel and tours, airlines, cinema halls, handicraft, media houses, advertising agencies, tailoring, beauty parlors, health and fitness clubs have been hit hard. The future of millions of workers employed by these businesses is now in limbo. The unemployment rate hit the record high of over 14 percent in 2020. Although several provisions of Nepal’s new budget aim at providing relief for people and businesses, Nepal’s growing political problem and poor budget implementation may prolong Nepal’s economic recovery.
The author holds a Master of Science in International Affairs from the New School University and Specialized Postgraduate courses from Harvard University