The Middle East needs more vaccines

It is not good enough that only 42 per cent of the Eastern Mediterranean region has received both doses of the Covid-19 vaccine

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For the past few months, corresponding to global trends, people in the UAE and in other Gulf countries that have already achieved the 70 per cent vaccination target have effectively been living in a post-pandemic world. In the UAE, the rate is closer to 99 per cent, and the Omicron surge in January has receded. But even as case numbers in the UAE continue to dip, bolstered by the success of its vaccination campaign, countries elsewhere in the Middle East have been less fortunate.

Despite a large portion of the world's attention on the war in Ukraine, the challenges of the coronavirus persist. A resurgence of the virus and possible devastating expressions of new variants cannot be underestimated, let alone ignored.

Considering that 20 mostly African countries have still not vaccinated even 10 per cent of their population against Covid-19, world leaders, especially in the richer West, would be imprudent to not heed the urgency of delivering vaccines where they are most needed, and to the one common end: so that the world is safer for all of us.

The WHO warned this week that only 42 per cent of the Eastern Medi­terranean region has been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Despite the decline in cases and deaths in recent weeks, the virus continues to transmit and infect people.

Earlier this month, in New York, Sarah Al Amiri, the UAE Minister of State for Advanced Technology, told the UN Security Council that faster action was needed to get vaccines to poor and war-torn countries. Rightfully speaking of a ripple effect, Ms Al Amiri said that only about one tenth of people in strife-ridden nations had received Covid-19 vaccines, and in some hotspots less than 1 per cent of the population had been inoculated.

For longer than even the past two years, we have heard the pandemic maxim about nobody being safe until everybody is safe. Going by inequities in global vaccine rates, however, the cause for concern is immense.

Added to that, the challenges are different across different countries in the region, where there is often little faith in public health systems, as in the case of Iraq, which is relatively rich in doses, but where some people have fallen prey to anti-vaccine disinformation or lack trust in the governments' abilities to deliver unexpired doses.

At the same time, other countries in the region are faring better, with the likes of Egypt, Tunisia, Nigeria even participating in WHO programmes to produce vaccines, getting equipped with mRNA manufacturing technology and setting up their own vaccination plants.

In the more strife-torn countries of Syria and Yemen, less than 10 per cent of the populations have received the full vaccination dose.

“The pandemic remains a public health emergency of international concern. This is not yet the time to drop our guard,” Ahmed Al Mandhari, WHO's regional director for the Eastern Mediterranean, said in Cairo. The region he is charged with has reported almost 21.7 million confirmed cases and nearly 342,000 deaths.

While the solutions are complex and expensive, there is much commendable work being done to reach the WHO's goal of vaccinating 70 per cent of the global population by the end of July, which would pull the world out of an acute phase, where it lacks Covid-19 inoculations.

Earlier this month, according to Reuters, Gavi managed $4.8 billion worth of funding pledges for the international vaccine-sharing scheme Covax, falling just a little short of its target of $5.2bn. Part of the money pledged is from individual countries and development banks. It is the sort of generosity that needs to be further harnessed until the common goal is met.

What Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, wrote in The National more than a year ago, still holds true: the global priority has to be "getting primary doses out to the billions of people in lower-income countries who are still unprotected, and support for countries that are struggling to get shots into people’s arms".

For everyone's safety, and not just in the Middle East, it is the only way.

Published: April 25, 2022, 2:00 AM