Speech: Wealthy nations are jeopardising global vaccine equity
History will look poorly on Australia and other wealthy countries for their complete and utter failure to support low-income countries in getting vaccinated. This is a complete abrogation of our responsibility to other countries, many of whom already suffer because of the colonial legacies that have left them in poverty.
The global COVID crisis continues to evolve, but Australia is missing in action when it comes to strong support for global vaccine equity. Vaccine apartheid looms large amongst the landscape of global inequities. What we are seeing on an international level is rich high-income nations making strides towards vaccinations, while poorer nations are left behind. Omicron should put further pressure on wealthy countries like Australia to step up to fund and facilitate vaccination across the world. This is the time to show global solidarity. But we are not quite there.
It has been over a year since India and South Africa first brought a proposal to the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property provisions on COVID-19 vaccines and allow for mass vaccine production across the global South. This was a simple and incredibly reasonable request, which, if it had been agreed to at the time, would have already allowed for the delivery of millions of vaccines to people in countries that have really struggled to gain access to jabs in the quantities needed to keep their populations safe. Dozens of low-income countries were quick to join on and support the proposal from India and South Africa. The United States eventually followed. Then, finally, in September of this year, Australia announced that it would support a waiver. But Australia has since clarified its position, with DFAT telling estimates last month: 'The government has decided that, rather than attaching itself' to a specific proposal, 'it's going to focus its efforts' on 'encouraging the key players to find convergence,' and to encourage both sides to show flexibility with a view to ensuring that we have a consensus outcome. Well, that's not good enough. In fact, it's pretty shameful. This sort of hedging is simply terrible. It's the coward's way out. And now countries across the world are paying the price.
The emergence of the omicron variant has put further pressure on Australia to co-sponsor the intellectual property waiver. At its upcoming ministerial meetings, the World Trade Organization will consider the intellectual property waiver first proposed by India and South Africa more than one year ago. Australia is at the table, and we should declare our hand unambiguously in support of the waiver proposal from India and South Africa. In fact, we should go further and do everything we can to galvanise support for this waiver.
The depressing reality is that, by refusing to co-sponsor the waiver, Australia has taken the side of big pharmaceutical companies over the health and wellbeing of millions of people. It's time for Australia to give its full-throated support to the waiver proposed by India and South Africa. In addition, Australia should substantially boost funding to the COVAX vaccine facility, to ramp up vaccination in low-income countries. Our per-capita contributions at this point have been miserly. Australia's donor funding to the global COVAX facility is low by global standards. Australia is contributing only about $4 per person, compared to the United States contributing nearly triple that, and many times less than countries such as Sweden and Norway. Last month the WHO reported that just five African countries—less than 10 per cent of Africa's 54 nations—are projected to hit their 2021 target of fully vaccinating 40 per cent of their populations unless efforts to accelerate the pace take off. The question we have to ask is: how many more people have to unnecessarily get sick or die from COVID in the global south before Australia backs the TRIPS waiver and properly funds COVAX so that global vaccine equity can become a reality?