In January 2021, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) published a special report, “Coronavirus vaccines: expect delays.” This report outlined when countries around the world would be expected to have vaccinated 60-70% of their population. While the report found that the majority of the population in high-income countries will be vaccinated by mid-2022, more than 85 middle- and low-income countries are not expected to achieve widespread vaccination coverage before 2023.
This was the best-case scenario at the time.
It should not come as a surprise that high-income countries are prioritizing the vaccination of their citizens. While preaching about the importance of vaccinating the most vulnerable, countries like the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have focused on domestic efforts, with over 60% of their population fully vaccinated as of August 2021. To put this into context, about 80% of the 5.5 billion vaccines that have been administered globally have gone to high-income countries. This is primarily because of the domestic political suicide that would have resulted if governments of high-income countries had enforced equitable distribution without every other country doing so as well. As a high-income country, Canada is no exception. On numerous occasions, the federal government has acted in contrast to its mantra: “Vaccinating the world against COVID-19 is the best way of protecting everyone from COVID-19, because no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
In February, Canada received international backlash for procuring 1.9 million Oxford-AstraZeneca doses from the global vaccine-sharing initiative, COVAX, which many argued to be designed for middle- to low-income countries. In June, Canada faced criticisms for hoarding vaccines, with data on vaccine deliveries, distribution, and injections provided by federal and provincial authorities demonstrating that almost 22 million doses have not yet been used. This is in addition to the millions of doses that have already been secured by Canada in 2022 and 2023.
More recently, Ontario announced that it will begin offering a third dose to vulnerable populations, while Saskatchewan and Quebec have expanded third dose qualification to include those who want to travel to countries that may not recognize mixed-vaccination status.
The announcement by the provinces comes at the same time as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) announcement that COVAX will fall short of its goal of delivering 2 billion doses of vaccines by the end of 2021. According to the most likely scenario in the COVAX Supply Forecast, only 1.4 billion doses are expected to have been delivered by the end of the year. This represents a reduction of about 25% in anticipated supply. It also means that the vaccination projections made by the EIU are likely to be extended.
With the WHO declaring that COVID is “here to stay,” it is important now more than ever that Canada refocus its commitment to the COVAX program and a global vaccination strategy. This involves not only distributing its excess vaccine supply, but also redirecting some of its anticipated vaccine supply in 2022 and 2023 to those in most need. Overordering vaccines has less value now that COVID-19 has been declared endemic. Among vaccinated populations, the virus is likely to have the same side effects as the flu. The concern, however, lies among those who are not fully vaccinated, as they continue to face a greater threat of hospitalization or death. In middle- and low-income countries, low vaccination rates only compound with other negative development impacts of COVID-19.
With experts anticipating an increased prominence of pandemics in the future, Canada has an opportunity to pave the way for a more global focused vaccination strategy. Although domestic vaccination will likely remain at the forefront of any initial vaccination strategy, limits need to be placed so that the most vulnerable are not left out. Afterall, as stated by Trudeau, “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
Sydney Burns is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. She completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa in International Relations and Modern Languages in French Immersion. She currently works for the Government of Canada as a policy analyst for the Controlled Substances and Cannabis Branch at Health Canada. Her research interests include Canadian and American foreign policy, as well as aid effectiveness and capacity building in developing countries, particularly in Central and Latin America.