After a year of the coronavirus pandemic, the vaccine rollout has been a beacon of hope. Companies including Pfizer, Moderna, and AztraZeneca have been distributing the vaccine on a global scale. However, with predictions that most poor countries won’t achieve mass immunisation against the virus until at least 2024, global inequality—which had already been growing for years before the outbreak—looks set to be consolidated by a divide between the vaccinated wealthy and unvaccinated poor.
Perhaps the most obvious and most depressing manifestation of this imbalance is the new trend for ‘vaccine holidays’: opportunities for the rich to skip the queue.
One elite club which began offering members aged 65 and over vaccine holidays back in January is Knightsbridge Circle, whose members reportedly have an average net worth of $800 million. With destinations ranging from the UAE to India and Madagascar, these privileges are only available to those who can afford the £40,000 fee. (In the UK, national travel restrictions class holidays as illegal – but cash can get you immunity to both the virus and the rules.)
However, Britain’s speedy vaccine rollout means our domestic millionaires haven’t been taking advantage of these offers as much as they might otherwise have done. In Global North countries where the rollout has been slower—like Canada—vaccine holidays are proving more popular.
Last month, the CEO of Canada’s largest pension fund, Mark Machin, resigned after ignoring travel restrictions and travelling to Dubai for a jab, and in January, a Canadian casino executive and his actress wife flew into a remote town populated by the indigenous community of the White River First Nation to skip the queue: they posed as local motel workers and received their shots before flying back out on their chartered plane to their luxury home in Vancouver.
The Bigger Problem
As tempting as it is to rail against the individuals who use and provide these services, though, vaccine holidays are only symptoms of a far bigger problem. They are a mark of a world in which wellbeing and survival are not basic rights that should be available to all on a public basis – they’re commodities to be bought and sold.
In Britain, Covid-19 has made the correlation between health and wealth inescapable. Poor people are more likely to die from Covid; poor areas are more likely to have high infection rates. That isn’t because those people can’t afford to fly out to Dubai for a vaccine vacation; it’s because of austerity cuts to public health services in poor areas, low rates of statutory sick pay, precarious employment, overcrowded housing, and institutional racism – among many, many more interrelated factors.
And those divisions are now being amplified on a global scale. In February, President Joe Biden announced a $4 billion package for the humanitarian program COVAX, which was designed last year to improve distribution between rich and poor countries. Despite that, COVAX only began its rollout the same month, leaving it lagging far behind those vaccination rollouts already underway in the Global North.
COVAX is an alternative to the waiving of vaccine patents, which many believe would achieve global immunity to Covid far quicker. The problem is that waiving patients jeopardises the profit of wealthy pharmaceutical companies. The US and UK, who sit in the top four countries with highest vaccination doses administered thus far, have been arguing against waivers at the World Trade Organisation, claiming that it would impede private investment. The priorities here are clear; meanwhile, around 130 countries have reportedly still not received a single dose.
The Great Unequaliser
Talk of being ‘all in this together’ has plagued government press responses during the pandemic, but the actions of the political class and their wealthy peers have done little to back this up.
The reality is that the pandemic has continually shown us that wealth inequality dictates, in the starkest terms, who gets to live, and who must risk dying. (Of course, it’s not just a poor person’s problem: what none of the jetsetters want to admit is that leaving others unvaccinated for long periods of time, either locally or abroad, increases the likelihood of a virus mutation that’s immune to their expensive or profit-generating jabs.)
Health inequalities are symptomatic of a capitalist system that intentionally fails to fulfil some people’s most basic needs while lavishing luxuries on others. Capitalist methods of distribution are inherently inequitable, and in times of health crises this has devastating consequences for those who are ranked lower on the socioeconomic scale.
Health democracy, on the other hand, means ensuring that everyone has the equal opportunity to realise a decent standard of health and wellbeing for themselves – but this can’t happen while capitalist logics that reinforce inequalities in health outcomes are themselves allowed to drive health service distribution.
Covid-19 has not been the ‘great equaliser’ some predicted it would back in March 2020. Instead, it has proven that elites will do everything they can to stop an equal world existing – and that we must fight to bring it about ourselves.