The development of vaccines designed to inoculate against COVID-19 has provided a sense of hope and relief in this deadly pandemic. In December 2020, the first vaccine was approved for use, followed by numerous others that got the seal of approval. Despite the fast-paced structure of clinical trials and testing stages, each of the vaccines has proven to be effective in preventing COVID-19.
However, the fast-paced nature of the development of the vaccines has made them all the more prone to be criticized by anti-vaxxers. Countries with enough financial resources to secure a sufficient supply of vaccines still face a split between those racing to be inoculated and those who are reluctant to receive a vaccine, citing the possibility of adverse side effects.
Regardless of the hesitancy and skepticism of some people, the benefits of vaccination remain abundantly clear — COVID-19 vaccines offer a safe and effective way to build protection against SARS-CoV-2 without having to experience sickness from the virus.
Even more, mass vaccination is integral to helping stop the pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, physical distancing and masks help reduce the spread of COVID-19, but these preventative actions are simply not enough. Stopping the pandemic will require all the tools we currently have available to us — the most important of which is vaccination. The simple truth is that ensuring the protection of the people by implementing mass vaccination campaigns is now a priority that lies at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given the integral role of vaccination in stopping the pandemic, it is no wonder that numerous universities across the US have made vaccination a requirement for students hoping to return to campus in the fall. But unlike the US, various Canadian universities — including U of T — have yet to do the same.
However, if U of T does decide to make vaccinations mandatory for its students, as it rightly should, the university will also be putting many international students at a substantial disadvantage. In the 2019–2020 academic year, approximately 25 per cent of the student body at U of T were international students — many of whom come from either low-, lower-middle- or upper-middle-income countries where vaccination campaigns have been strikingly slow in comparison to a high-income country like Canada.
According to an article recently published in The Washington Post, “45 percent of all vaccine doses administered so far have gone to just 16 percent of the world’s population in what the World Bank considers high-income countries.” Despite the World Health Organization backing initiatives such as COVAX to tackle vaccine inequities, they persist because wealthier nations directly signed deals with the producers of vaccines. So, the harsh truth is that many of the world’s poorest nations may remain unvaccinated for years to come.
Furthermore, the divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ has only widened. Surging outbreaks and slow pace of vaccinations threaten to engulf poorer countries such as India and Brazil, but, at the same time, rapid vaccination campaigns in cities such as New York, London, and Tel Aviv may allow for a transition back to normalcy.
These apparent differences show how the distribution of vaccines has been marked by stark global inequities, which reflects a pervasive pattern of global health inequities that started long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
With pre-existing social vulnerabilities, many poorer nations were ill-equipped to deal with the constraints of a pandemic. So when the pandemic hit, the long-standing flaws in the health systems of these countries were exacerbated. The additional hoarding of vaccines by wealthier nations has only served to widen these deep-rooted global health disparities.
That is why the mandatory vaccinations required by some universities render these prevalent global health inequities all the more inequitable. Without access to a vaccine in their home country, many international students may not be able to return to in-person classes in the fall.
This presents a dilemma for universities, such as U of T, because vaccination is a necessity for a safe transition back to in-person classes. However, if U of T were to assume responsibility for vaccinating its students by administering a first dose to international students at the beginning of the fall semester, that might offer a solution to this dilemma.
By assuming such a responsibility, U of T could play an integral role in confronting the vaccine inequity that threatens to prolong an already deadly pandemic. This would not only mark a critical step forward in the global fight against COVID-19, but it would also foster the global cooperation needed to overcome the pandemic.
Many people continue to live under the pretense that once they’re vaccinated they can ignore the struggles that continue to worsen in other parts of the world — yet the reality is that emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic is a global effort, not just a national one. If we are to recover from the pandemic, we need to ensure that everyone has fair and equitable access to a vaccine.
This pandemic may have acted as an equalizer by rendering us all vulnerable to the devastating effects of the same virus, but ultimately, it is the disparities inherent in the systems of different countries that have the final say. If we continue to ignore these realities, then we’ll only further perpetuate the polarization brought on by a very deadly pandemic.
Shernise Mohammed-Ali is a third-year student at Victoria College studying neuroscience with minors in psychology and English.