Vaccines for all is what will enable travel

Boxes of Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines, part of the the Covax programme, which aims to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccinations, arrive by plane in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on May 8. AFP
Boxes of Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines, part of the the Covax programme, which aims to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccinations, arrive by plane in Antananarivo, Madagascar, on May 8. AFP

Covid-19 has claimed 3.2 million lives globally, although a report last week said that the loss could be double that figure.

Given such a grim scenario, countries are likely to have travel restrictions in place for the foreseeable future. But for how long those stay in place will depend also on how soon the world is vaccinated. Until then, disruptions in travel schedules could be routine. There is a heavy toll on affected people around the world.

The UK's announcement of its traffic travel light system will, for instance, affect the sizeable number of British overseas citizens who live and work overseas. Britons living in the UAE, and residents of the UAE with significant ties to the UK are among those affected.

Families have not seen each other in months. Children have not hugged their grandparents. There is no doubt that lockdowns have been universally tough. And it is only human to feel dejected at restrictive travel policies. But given that the UAE has the second-fastest vaccination rate – more than 11 million Covid-19 vaccine doses administered – the impediments to visit the UK, as Mansoor Abulhoul, the ambassador of the UAE to the UK, said, "are disappointing".

For countries at large to emerge from such impositions is not going to be easy. The virus is still mutating, still causing untold misery. India is breaking records of infection cases – in one day, 4,187 people have died. As epidemiologists and authorities have repeatedly said, no one is safe till everyone is. We are seeing the propensity of the virus to mutate and reach every corner of the world. The Indian strain, "a variant of concern", has now reached the UK.

The long-term solution to ending the pandemic, as has been said before in these pages, is a strong and persistent push for universal vaccination, in every country, rich or poor. The way to gradually ease out of these extended periods of disruption and uncertainty is to manufacture more vaccines. The world needs multiple times more than what is right now available. It cannot be the case that only the privileged in the richest countries get the jab. The cost of allowing developing nations to lag behind is unacceptable.

To this end, expanding access to vaccines, the World Health Organisation approved Sinopharm for emergency use, making it the sixth vaccine to receive WHO validation – the first non-western one to get the green light. This is a big boost for inoculation efforts across the world. Such timely permissions are especially needed to combat the spread of the mutating virus.

To curb death tolls of second and third waves of Covid-19, vaccines need to be not just available, but also abundantly so, in order to minimise the gap between demand and supply.

Easier to store, the Sinopharm vaccine is set to be added to the Covax programme – through which vaccines reach poorer countries. This is a step in the right direction.

Mass global inoculations will make travel easier. They could enable the proliferation of workarounds such as vaccine passports and safe air corridors.

Constant Covid-19 vigilance, however, will still be key for a long time to come. Even in a country with a successful vaccine roll-out such as the UK, where the economy is now opening up, travel policies have had to be closely monitored to make sure the virus spread is contained and lives spared.

When contrasted with countries elsewhere in the world, where healthcare systems are under insurmountable pressures, inequalities between the advanced and developing worlds show up starkly. Discrepancies in health care of countries with differing growth rates are not new. But it is ill-considered from a global policymaking standpoint if in one part of the world a preventable shortage of oxygen is stealing lives even as a few countries are able to get the virus under control.

It does not bode well for the world's collective recovery when countries recover at drastically unequal paces, some going into partial lockdowns, others doing well enough to be able to welcome visitors. We should all be able to get there.

Until the whole world is vaccinated and it is safe to travel, the pandemic will not truly be over. Only once everyone is safe is anyone really safe.

Published: May 9, 2021 04:00 AM

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