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The Politicization of The Vaccine

“We can only hope for the success of outreach global projects, against the backdrop of increasingly isolationist countries, like the UK. Anything other than full global vaccination, along with other and ongoing measures to suppress the virus is pointless.”

We approached December 2020 with UK wide trepidation, already sea-sick from the swell of tiers and levels of lockdown as the virus ebbed and flowed on its own steady tide. We feared that we would simultaneously lose something precious if we could not celebrate Christmas with loved ones, yet assist the spread of Covid if we did.

Then along came another couple of curve balls. More accurately, spikes. The news, known since September by the UK government, was announced that the virus had mutated to a more transmissible degree of up to 70%. This almost coincided, or at least co-existed with the announcement on the 2nd December of the approval of the Pfizer-BioNTec vaccine. It seemed that the nation was already drunk on a heady pre-festive cocktail of anxiety and euphoria.

As the chaos of burst household bubbles, abandoned travel plans, breached guidelines and conflicting media messages engulfed us, the media opted for its safest default position. Populism. It exalted the vaccine to the level of the second coming itself. The heretics amongst us pondered the logistics of the delicate deep freeze transportation, storing and dosing of the vaccine, alongside the threat of complacency with its arrival. We also tried to beat back the hysteria of the antivaxxers, cornered and attack-ready in defeat. In jig time we had rolled around to the Great inaugural jag showcase.

In the context of the Care Home death rate by Covid it would be churlish to rain upon that parade, as the first elderly lady, a care home resident in Scotland, and previously a carer herself, rolled up her sleeve. The message went out loud and clear; it was just a wee pinprick that would save lives. Even the somewhat ominous choice of one William Shakespeare as second recipient of the vaccine, south of the border, could not compromise general optimism.

The first reminders that we are experiencing a pandemic, and that the vaccine is, or should be recognised as a global affair, came not with extensive coverage of world-wide distribution to developing countries. but with the spectacle of one discredited citizen-in-waiting, Donald Trump, as he and his administration took full responsibility for the vaccine approval in the states. A previous attempt to hoard vaccines and prioritise Americans resulted only in confusion and the continuation of soaring death rates.

The first major “Uh Oh!” moment in the UK arrived in our newsfeed, not from SAGE or the WHO, but from Tony Blair. In time honoured tradition, the UK media, who like to promote the aspirations of retired politicians to grandee status, regardless of how many illegal wars are perpetrated or unmet vows are promised, reported Mr Blair’s vaccine plan. On the 23rd December, as a proportion of the UK Christmas crackers already prepared to deliver a death warrant from lovingly set tables, and 500,000 of the Uk’s already vaccinated citizens awaited the expected second dose, Blair argued that the roll-out must be “radically accelerated.”  His proposal involved vaccinating more citizens, and significantly extending the time between the doses.

The WHO’s strategic advisory group of experts on immunisation (Sage – not to be confused with the UK government’s Sage group) said it understood why the UK might decide to go beyond the 21 day gap recommended by Pfizer, in a country facing the sort of increases in cases, hospitalisations and deaths that were happening in the UK. As the NHS remains stretched UK wide after successive years of underfunding, the vaccine roll-out programme took the hit almost right away. The scientific community remains split on this matter.

The care home covid death rate will be forever seared on our experience as a disaster of brutally unspeakable proportions. Hence the Scottish Government decision to concentrate on care home citizens as a priority. In a flurry to train vaccinators, acquire and carefully transport and store vaccines, the programme was well underway by mid-January. Nevertheless this proved to be an ideal political football at First Minister’s Question Time. There’s no show without punch it seems. That would be Baroness in-waiting and recycled acting Holyrood opposition leader Ruth Davidson.

Accountability is everything in opposition, but the twisting of words to confuse Scotland’s allocation of vaccine with actual availability amounts to cynical political point scoring. Long gone is any pretence, evident from Spring 2020 lockdown, that the parliament could suspend this culture of abrasive confrontation. This was only the start of an unseemly competition weighing up the vaccination figures between Scotland and England.

Somewhere lost in the mix is the awareness that every eligible group of actual and potential vaccinators consists of a flagging group of front-line workers, ravaged by stress, sickness and diminished in numbers by the need for covid related self-isolation. We have all been groomed to expect an element of knowledge about Covid vaccination and pharmaceutical companies that we’d have previously by-passed. No-where in the politically charged mainstream media-driven orgy of sound-byte reporting is the real human element, nor the boring detail of vial production etc. Instead, we are offered the spectacle of PM Boris Johnson’s spectacularly partisan and questionably forbidden meeting with the British army, setting up a vaccine centre.

As the competition extends to EU versus UK numbers, with the UK currently tearing away in front, the PM Johnson has the audacity to announce that Scotland should rejoice in being part of the winning team. No mention of the obscenity of the UK’s 100,000 winning death rate.

While the quagmire of the EU versus UK vaccine squabble over AstraZeneca and Pfizer contracts continues, it’s difficult not to see Brexit looming as the elephant in the room. “Scotland, can you really afford to be independent?” runs the tiresome narrative of political opposition and media commentators, ironically obsessed by independence, without reference to our own contributions to the wealth of the UK.

Meanwhile eyes are averted from the most grotesque competition of all. That between the first world and developing or occupied countries. Channel 4 news reported that, to date, 60% of the vaccine has been purchased by 16 of the richest countries.

Israel boasts a programme in readiness for their second dose, at the expense of The West Bank. Canada has reportedly purchased doses up to four times that required  for its citizens. And while we cannot begrudge the USA, ravaged by Covid deaths under the Trump administration, its vaccine roll-out is now in the considerably safer hands of the Biden administration.
From Moldavia to Panama, any many others around the globe, the vaccine is yet to appear. On December 11th the BMJ reported;

“At least 90% of people in 67 low income countries stand little chance of getting vaccinated against covid-19 in 2021 because wealthy nations have reserved more than they need and developers will not share their intellectual property, says the People’s Vaccine Alliance, which includes Amnesty International, Frontline AIDS, Global Justice Now, and Oxfam.”

However, on 22nd January the WHO announced;

“COVAX, the global initiative to ensure rapid and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all countries, regardless of income level, today announced the signing of an advance purchase agreement with Pfizer for up to 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine candidate, which has already received WHO emergency use listing. Rollout will commence with the successful negotiation and execution of supply agreements”

We can only hope for the success of outreach global projects, against the backdrop of increasingly isolationist countries, like the UK. This must involve sharing of intellectual property, rather than 1980s Band Aid type charity. From the conception of the vaccine programme to its birth and roll-out, our familiarity with the names, locations and progress of the pharmaceutical companies involved, have rendered them almost as familiar and comfy as our old footstool. They are not. They are far from blameless and they need to take some responsibility for the scramble for product, sometimes at widely varying costs.

Anything other than full global vaccination, along with other and ongoing measures to suppress the virus is pointless. Even within the UK and other rich countries, any neglect to engage those who, for reasons of poverty or institutional racism, for instance, are unable or unassisted to attend second or even first appointments for vaccination, is a neglect that we will all pay the price for.

For all the playground squabbling, vaccine nationalism and propaganda, I welcome it, and will gladly accept my appointment when the time comes. But rather than the cameo rolled-up sleeve, we need to give it a reception with arms wide enough to encircle the whole planet.

Val Waldron




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