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Covax and why you can’t charity your way out of a pandemic

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: Bolsonaro is bored with the coronavirus, Korean gyms are playing slow jams

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Covax, the United Nations-backed Covid-19 immunization program, was supposed to vaccinate the world. But 18 months after its much heralded launch, it is now safe to call it a flop, if not an outright failure. 

The program is responsible for just 5% of all vaccines administered globally and an astonishing 98% of people in low-income countries are yet to receive a single shot. That’s according to a new investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, STAT, El País, and Ojo Público, which reviewed confidential internal documents and interviewed officials from more than two dozen countries involved with Covax. I really recommend going through the investigation in full, but here are the main takeaways: 

  • A number of the targets set by Covax appear wildly unrealistic. In the past 18 months, the program has delivered just 330 million vaccines, yet it says that in the next three months it will  deliver 1.1 billion doses.
  • In some countries, including Niger and Sudan, when vaccines eventually arrived, some were close to expiration or were delivered without syringes or other equipment needed to administer them.
  • While Covax had intended to use multiple vaccine manufacturers, it ended up ordering 75% of initial doses from a single company in India, millions of which were delayed when the country blocked vaccine exports. “Because of Covax’s decision to put all their eggs into one basket, people did die,” said one expert.
  • Wealthy nations have pledged 785 million doses to Covax for allocation to poorer countries by September, however only 18% of them have arrived.
  • “You can’t charity your way out of a pandemic,” Kate Elder of Medecins Sans Frontières said of Covax’s strategy of counting on donors to cover costs.

“That country club mindset needs to change,” said one health expert, saying that Covax’s “foundational flaw” was a lack of interest in listening to the needs of lower and middle-income countries.

The report describes a program mired in chaos and miscommunication, with vaccine shipments arriving months late to countries, which led to delayed immunizations, and, in some cases, fueled misinformation. “Because the vaccines were delayed,” a Nigerian health official told reporters, “those conspiracy theories became more widespread.” 

GLOBAL ROUND UP

When it comes to the Infodemic, few can rival President Jair Bolosnaro of Brazil. This week, he wins again. As his country surpassed 600,000 Covid-19 deaths to date — the second-worst death toll in the world after the United States — he announced that he would not vaccinate, saying, “I’ll be the last Brazilian to do it.” In a separate interview, Bolsonaro also said that he was bored with the pandemic. Who isn’t? Most of us can relate to being fed up with the coronavirus. This newsletter was supposed to be a few-months-long pop up. Eighteen months on, we are still going strong. The rest of us, however, are not running a country of 213 million people. Fortunately, Brazilians don’t seem to be taking their leader too seriously. Almost half are fully vaccinated and at least another 50 million have had one dose. But Bolsonaro’s opposition to health passes, restrictions and lockdowns has undoubtedly made their nation’s fight against the pandemic more difficult than it ever needed to be. 

Separatist-controlled parts of Eastern Ukraine have the highest Covid-19 death toll per capita in Europe. Videos of overflowing morgues and body bags piling up in hospital corridors are reminiscent of scenes during the height of the ongoing conflict in 2015. The so-called People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk are effectively protectorates of Russia. That’s why the government in Kyiv has set up vaccination sites on the border, for people inside the occupied territories, but is not sending any supplies in. Moscow also seems to be failing to come to the rescue, for technical reasons that have implications for all countries that rely on Sputnik V. Having pioneered the first coronavirus vaccine, Russia is now struggling to produce enough of Sputnik V’s second dose, which is chemically different from the first. It is also distributing a single-dose shot called Sputnik Light but, according to experts we’ve spoken to, Sputnik Light is helpless against the Delta variant.  

Gym instructors in South Korea had to make new playlists over the summer. Due to the Covid-19 regulations, Koreans can only enjoy group workouts to music that is slower than 120 beats per minute. According to the authorities, slow jams mean less movement — and fewer saliva splatters in the room.  

Erica Hellerstein, Katia Patin and Masho Lomashvili all contributed to this week’s Infodemic.Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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