Depending on where in the world you’re parked reading this, you will likely view the COVID-19 vaccine rollout as either a huge success or painfully slow.
More than 3.33 billion doses (and counting) of at least 12 vaccines have been jabbed into people’s arms around the world to date. About 24% of the global population has been inoculated at least once. Incredible figures and wonderful news in such a short time, right? Well, a closer look at who is getting what and where presents us with a less rosy picture.
While Israel, the U.K. and Chile have vaccinated around half of their populations, in most African countries, the rate is closer to 1%. Entrenched discrimination is pushing women, trans people and Indigenous communities to the back of the inoculation queue. What’s clear now is that the COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered an uncomfortable and sometimes tragic truth: The world remains a deeply unequal place.
Today, we dive into the little-known divisions the rush for vaccines is fueling.
Josefina Salomon, OZY Reporter
mind the gender gap
1. Indian Shocker
Authorities in India are being accused of failing to tackle the country’s “vaccine gender gap,” with women still being inoculated at a far slower pace than men. Around 166 million women have received a COVID-19 vaccine, in comparison to 193 million men. Shockingly, the gender divide is particularly severe in states with above average COVID-19 cases. Although tragic, this gap, which is not explained by men representing a larger proportion of the population, should not come as a surprise. A study that examined medical records at the All India Institutes of Medical Sciences, a group of public medical universities spread across India, found that just 37% of women who visited an AIIMS facility got access to health care, as opposed to 67% of men. Entrenched cultural practices and a lack of access to transportation and internet to make vaccination bookings online are just some of the main barriers women are facing in the wake of COVID-19. Sofia Imad, a junior fellow at IDFC Institute in Mumbai, tells OZY that misinformation campaigns around the vaccine are spreading through messaging apps and there haven’t been enough efforts from the government to counter them.“There’s fear, myths and misconceptions on the effects of the vaccine, and many are women-specific like infertility or that you can’t get vaccinated if you are menstruating.”
2. American Surprise
On the other side of the world, the opposite is true. While earlier this year a poll suggested women in the U.S. were less keen than men to get the jab, now figures show the opposite actually happening, with men today lagging behind in the inoculation race. There are many possible explanations: Women in the U.S. live longer and they outnumber men as essential workers, so more of them were eligible for the vaccine early. In addition, data shows that men seem to be less vigilant about their health, likely a consequence of the same cultural traditions that place most of the family care responsibilities on women. Experts say ideology may also play a role, with men more likely to lean toward conservative discourse and susceptible to conspiracy theories.
In countries with very low vaccination rates, including most of Africa, experts fear the gender gap could be particularly acute. They say there’s a dangerous assumption that men are at higher risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 because they tend to work outside the home and are therefore in contact with more people. This unfounded premise not only overlooks women’s rising role as caregivers — including as health care professionals — but also builds on historic gender-based discrimination when it comes to women and girls accessing jobs and education.
4. No ID, No Jab
For LGBTQ people across the world, accessing health care services can be nothing short of a challenge, with discrimination and abuse common practices. For trans people in particular, things can be even more difficult, with authorities demanding identification documents that might not match their name or appearance. That’s been the case in Indonesia, where in order to receive the electronic ID card required to access the COVID-19 jab, trans women are being asked to present a document issued by the head of their family. For most trans women, this is simply not possible. Local activists estimate more than half of senior transgender women in Indonesia do not have an electronic ID card, preventing them from accessing any health care service at all, let alone the precious jab.
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Many of the 60 million people living in rural areas across the U.S. are more vulnerable to COVID-19 than those living in urban areas. Risk factors include age and health conditions prevalent in rural populations which, alongside limited access to health care centers and insurance, make COVID-19 particularly dangerous. Despite this, fewer people living in rural settings were vaccinated against COVID-19 compared to those living in cities (38.9% and 45.7%, respectively). Although lower population density in rural areas could be one reason for this disparity, it doesn’t explain the whole story.
2. Dracula’s Charm
In Romania, where nearly half the population lives in rural areas, the government has struggled to get people into vaccination centers. With one of the highest rates of vaccine skepticism in Europe, authorities pulled out all the stops and deployed one of the country’s most famous landmarks: For one month, the 14th-century Bran Castle, known for inspiring Bram Stoker’s iconic Dracula, was turned into a jab center. Free entry to the castle’s medieval torture exhibit was also provided to anyone willing to make the trip and get the vaccine. “The idea . . . was to show how people got jabbed 500 to 600 years ago in Europe,” Alexandru Priscu, the castle’s marketing director, told Reuters.
3. Bucking the Trend
Taking the opposite approach, and against the advice of scientists, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was elected to office on a platform of prioritizing the country’s most marginalized, opened Mexico’s inoculation program in January by vaccinating the rural poor first, ahead of even frontline health care workers. He argued that his government was prioritizing communities with fewer health care resources. Some experts, however, have criticized his approach, saying those at greater risk and areas with higher rates of infection should have been placed first in the queue. Since then, however, the inoculation campaign has expanded, and COVID-19 cases have fallen.
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With violence, extreme poverty and other hardships exacerbated by the pandemic, undocumented communities continue to move around the globe with few protections. While some countries in Europe, such as Germany and Portugal, are making the vaccine universally available, others, including Belgium and Poland, are requiring individuals to provide an address, a move that might deter vulnerable individuals from getting vaccinated due to their legal status.
Adding to the border restrictions facing those keeping global trade flowing, many seafarers are now finding it difficult to access vaccines, despite working in risky, confined conditions. The situation is so concerning that shipping executives have called on the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations body in charge of shipping, to secure jabs for its most vulnerable workers.
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Despite the challenges and controversies, this is the largest global vaccination campaign in history, with more than 3.33 billion doses already in arms. Millions of people across the world are getting one of the more than a dozen vaccines in circulation every day. What do vaccines actually do? They “teach” our bodies to fight the virus and are the single most important strategy we have to get some of our “normal” back. But as many countries around the world scramble to protect their people, it looks like not every vaccine will serve as a golden ticket to travel.
2. Where Was Your Vaccine Made?
The good news is that borders are slowly reopening. The bad news is that traveling will be more complicated for a while, with some countries only allowing visitors from particular nations. The EU, for example, is opening its doors to those arriving from countries where the virus seems to be under control and to individuals who have been inoculated with one of the four vaccines it has approved for use (Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson). Individual countries within the EU, however, are still imposing their own rules, although regulations are changing fast.
3. Cool to China
While the AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were the first to be approved for use by the World Health Organization, and are the most widely distributed in terms of the number of countries using them, the Chinese-developed Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines are following close behind. In fact, these vaccines are being widely used, out of necessity rather than choice, in Southeast Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. So much so that the World Health Organization is urging Western countries to approve their use and allow travelers inoculated with them to enter.
Pfizer and co. are not the only game in town. In fact, several little-known vaccines are currently being used, some exclusively in the country in which they were developed. All the while, scientists across the world are continuing to research and develop new jabs. Cuba, for example, recently announced its own vaccine, Soberana 2, which is showing over 60% efficacy after just two of its three doses. Iran has started producing Cuba’s vaccine, while Venezuela has received its first shipment of doses, and Argentina, Jamaica and Mexico have also expressed interest in purchasing it.
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