NEW YORK, New York — On April 9, 2021, Greta Thunberg, an 18-year-old climate activist, shared a jarring infographic on her Instagram account. The infographic from the New York Times Instagram account shared vaccination data indicating that “0.1% of COVID-19 vaccines administered worldwide have gone to low-income countries.” In stark contrast, “86% of doses have gone to high- and upper-middle-income countries.” The statistic lays out the global issue of unequal vaccine distribution. On April 19, 2021, just 10 days after the post, Thunberg spoke out again about the issue of vaccine inequality at a World Health Organization (WHO) press conference.
Vaccine inequality, to put it simply, is the unequal distribution of vaccines across lower-income and wealthy countries. Wealthier countries bought mass amounts of COVID-19 vaccines when vaccines became accessible. Lower-income countries that could not afford to purchase mass amounts of doses went without. As of April 19, 2021, one in four people in wealthy countries has received a COVID-19 vaccine. The difference is stark compared to one in more than 500 people vaccinated in low-income nations. This leaves young, healthy people in wealthier nations receiving the vaccine before healthcare workers and other vulnerable populations in lower-income nations. As high-income countries have secured vaccines to cover their populations several times over, low-income countries have suffered.
Greta Thunberg’s Outlook
Both on her Instagram account and at the WHO press conference, Thunberg showed a commitment to raising awareness on the issue of vaccine inequality. At the time of Thunberg’s statement, the WHO had just announced 5.2 million new COVID-19 cases, “the largest weekly count yet.” Thunberg called world leaders to action, pleading with countries to give up their vaccine nationalism and help end vaccine inequality. At the WHO press conference, Thunberg called the unequal distribution of vaccines “unethical.” Thunberg added that people must “step up for one another” in order to move away from vaccine nationalism toward vaccine multilateralism.
Thunberg explains how the health crisis is deeply connected to the climate crisis: as forests and habitats are destroyed, conditions are created for diseases to spread from animals to humans. Just as Thunberg advocates for a global solution to the climate crisis, she demands the same for the COVID-19 pandemic. Thunberg calls for equitable sharing of vaccines across the world, putting vaccine equality at the forefront of her advocacy. In her Instagram post, Thunberg states, “Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions.” Underlying her post is another core message that if lower-income nations are not vaccinated, their leaders and representatives cannot be present at discussions of global issues that affect all countries.
The Value of a Platform
Thunberg’s use of her activism platform to speak out about vaccine inequality brought the issue to light. Many news publications have since featured her statements. Thunberg highlights a hard truth: countries engaging in vaccine nationalism fail to recognize that if one country goes unprotected, all countries are unprotected. It is the responsibility of wealthy countries to support efforts to vaccinate lower-income nations. In February 2021, the U.S. pledged $4 billion to COVAX in support of this goal. Thunberg herself has donated $120,000 to the WHO Foundation in support of COVAX. A global pandemic will require global cooperation, an act that begins with vaccine equity.
– Georgia Bynum