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  • Writer's pictureBen Bramble

Vaccine Distribution and Double Standards

Vaccinations for COVID-19 are proceeding apace in wealthy countries around the world like the US and UK. Governments have typically been prioritizing their older citizens and frontline healthcare workers before moving on to the rest of their adult populations. But this hasn’t stopped some people from trying to jump the queue, including wealthy people offering money or donations. There has been a massive public backlash against such behavior. And rightly so. In a crisis like this, with lives on the line, such queue-jumping seems morally outrageous.

But there is a glaring double standard at work here. Wealthy countries are themselves guilty of queue-jumping in an international context. While it is of course reasonable for wealthy countries to vaccinate their older citizens and essential workers immediately, remaining vaccines should then be made available to older citizens and essential workers of developing countries.

It is disturbing that so many young, healthy Americans are enraged at their wealthy compatriots taking vaccines that might have gone to them, while at the same time hoping to receive these vaccines themselves before vulnerable citizens in countries that are too poor to afford many vaccines at all.

This double standard, of course, might not even have occurred to such people, but this too would be cause for moral concern. To be unaware of the plight of those who are so desperately needy, indeed far needier than oneself, is a deep moral failing. At the very least, it is symptomatic of a culture that is insular in a way that greatly limits its citizens ability to engage with the world. That so many people in the US and UK do not realize how much worse things are in some poorer countries at the moment is telling.

Wealthy countries are themselves guilty of queue-jumping in an international context.

The moral problem here is made worse by the fact that so many of these young, healthy Americans and Brits, while not wealthy by domestic standards, possess the financial means to effectively shelter from the virus until vaccines become less scarce. They can continue to take time off work, have their groceries delivered, and so on.

This moral problem is especially profound in countries like Australia, where the virus has been virtually eliminated. Australia is aiming to vaccinate the majority of its adult population as soon as possible, even though its quarantine, testing, and contact-tracing systems are so effective that any new outbreaks are quickly stamped out. Daily life has been almost normal in most Australian cities for the duration of the pandemic.

If any country can afford to give up its vaccine supply to vulnerable citizens of poorer countries, it is Australia, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. But Australians are having none of this, and are intent to take vaccines they don’t really need at this stage. It is not even as if Australia, when fully vaccinated, will be opening its borders any time soon. This is moral déjà vu for a country that has failed so badly in the past to pull its weight in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

To be unaware of the plight of those who are so desperately needy, indeed far needier than oneself, is a deep moral failing.

This leads to my next point. ‘Vaccine hoarding’ is not only immoral, it is contrary to the medium-to-long-term interests of these wealthy countries themselves. For normal life to resume in countries like the US and UK, and for Australians to be able to travel freely around the world again (a national pastime), we need the whole world to be vaccinated. This will be hastened by prioritising essential workers in all countries, especially those countries with less access to adequate PPE or where most people are so poor that they have no option but to go to work.

Some people say that it is the right of wealthy countries like the US and UK to vaccinate their entire populations first. They can afford it, and the marketplace for vaccines is a marketplace, after all. But even if governments are morally able (or even required) to put their own citizens first on some occasions or in some ways, it is doubtful that this applies here, when things are so very dire in other countries.

In any case, the key point is that if you believe that wealthy countries can justifiably vaccinate their whole populations first (before sending vaccines abroad to needier countries), then you had better stay quiet when you hear of your wealthy compatriots offering cash to get their vaccination before you. Otherwise you are guilty of a dangerous double standard.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Public Ethics Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations.


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