Vaccine politics and human rights

COVID vaccine vile and needle next to a placard that says "reserved"

More than 32 million COVID shots have now been administered globally, raising hopes that the light at the end of the tunnel is now in sight.

The US has vaccinated 3 percent of its total population, while the UK is nearing a solid 5 percent inoculation rate. In Israel, which has been hailed as a vaccine success story, almost 24 percent of people have already received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine.

But while many countries are able to glimpse the outlines of a post-COVID world, there is a huge population of people who are being left out entirely. Refugees, as well as displaced, undocumented, and stateless people around the world remain ineligible for inoculations and vulnerable to the coronavirus.

We take a look at three case studies where powerless populations are being left in the lurch.


Colombia's Venezuelan migrant dilemma. The dire economic and political crises under the Maduro regime in Venezuela have plunged 65 percent of households into poverty and caused widespread food and medicine shortages. As a result, 1.7 million desperate Venezuelans have spilled over into neighboring Colombia, putting a massive strain on Colombia's already weak public infrastructure.

Now Colombian President Ivan Duque says that those who don't have formal migration status will not have access to Colombia's vaccine stash, meaning that around 935,000 Venezuelan refugees will be ineligible for the shot. Duque claims the policy is aimed at prioritizing the wellbeing of Colombians first amid a surging outbreak, and avoiding a rush on the border as more Venezuelans clamor to get the vaccine. But public health experts say that the move isn't just a humanitarian failure, it's also an epidemiological one that will hamper Colombia's efforts to root out the disease, because a successful vaccine drive should be as broad as possible.

Israel shirks responsibility to Palestinians. Israel has been broadly praised for its ambitious vaccine drive, now leading the world in COVID vaccinations per capita by a long shot. At this rate, the government aims to vaccinate the entire population of 9 million by the end of March, a remarkable feat as vaccine rollouts remain sluggish across North America and Europe.

But Israel's vaccine drive excludes millions of Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank, as well as the Gaza Strip (though the Strip is run by the Islamist Hamas militant group and not the internationally-recognized Palestinian Authority).

Israeli officials say that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has not reached out for assistance with vaccine procurement, an odd justification for inaction during a once-in-a-generation global crisis. They also argue that under the terms of the Oslo Accords, the de-facto law of the land, the Palestinian Authority oversees healthcare for its people. (Arab citizens of Israel are in fact being vaccinated.)

But application of international law here is murky: while the Oslo Accords gave the Palestinian Authority responsibility in the West Bank and Gaza, the Fourth Geneva Convention states that an occupying power (Israel) has a clear responsibility to assist those living under its occupation (the Palestinians). Under Israel's current vaccine scheme, millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, many of whom work in Israeli cities, are being left behind.

Undocumented migrants abandoned in the US. Nebraska's Republican Governor Pete Ricketts recently sparked a firestorm when he said undocumented immigrants would be ineligible for COVID vaccines in his state. Ricketts doubled down even when critics pointed out that 11 percent of Nebraska's meat processing workers, who have been pummeled by COVID-19, are undocumented.

Similar conversations have played out in New York state, home to at least 750,000 undocumented migrants (likely an undercount) who are disproportionately represented in essential jobs. The federal government recently reneged on a requirement mandating that states report the personal details of all vaccine recipients, information that could then be passed on to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. However, after the government flip-flop, it's unclear whether undocumented New Yorkers — who fear arrest and deportation — will now feel safe to show up for the jab.

Not enough vaccines. Leaving behind the most vulnerable populations both within their own countries' borders and in adopted ones, is not only morally questionable, it is bad public health policy as the world strives to get to COVID zero. But there is a very basic constraint here for all the politicians involved: there are fewer vaccines than people, and no elected leader could agree to vaccinate non-citizens before citizens, could they?

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Ukraine is once again in a tough spot.

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Listen: Soumya Swaminathan calls for a massive increase in the global vaccine supply in order to prevent the rise of more dangerous and vaccine-evading super-variants, in a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast. Dr. Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization, argues that vaccine nationalism, where countries prioritize their own citizens ahead of the rest of the world, will only prolong the pandemic because a virus does not stop at any national border. She also weighs in on a controversial new WHO report investigating the origins of COVID-19 and discusses when she thinks the world's children should get vaccinated. In addition, she suggests we may see alternative vaccine forms, like nasal sprays, sooner than we think.

Subscribe to the GZERO World Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or your preferred podcast platform to receive new episodes as soon as they're published.

India, the world's third largest emitter of carbon dioxide, is one of the countries worst affected by climate change. But it takes issue with those now asking it to clean up its act. Why, the Indians ask, should we give up our right to get rich by burning fossil fuels like you developed economies have done for generations?

That's precisely the message that India's energy minister had for the US and other wealthy nations at a recent Zoom summit after they pressured Delhi to set a future deadline for net zero emissions. For India, he explained, such targets are "pie in the sky" aspirations that do little to address the climate crisis the country faces right now.

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The Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are nearly a year away, but discussion of a potential boycott is already stoking tensions on both sides of the US-China relationship. Officials in Washington and other Western capitals are coming under mounting pressure from activists to respond to human rights abuses in China. An increasingly assertive Beijing, meanwhile, vigorously rejects any foreign criticism of what it regards as internal issues.

The last time the US boycotted an Olympics was in 1980, when it withdrew from the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Four years later, the Soviet Union repaid in kind by skipping the Games in Los Angeles. Would the US and its allies do something like that again? And how might China respond? Eurasia Group analysts Neil Thomas and Allison Sherlock explain the drivers of the boycott movement and its possible fallout.

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In two weeks, US President Joe Biden will be hosting an online "climate summit" to mark Earth Day. He'll ask China and India to sign up to America's ambitious new plan to slow down climate change. Will they go for it? China is the world's largest polluter, but Beijing is rolling out solar and wind power as fast as it's burning coal. India, meanwhile, is loathe to pick up the slack for rich countries that polluted their way to wealth and now want everyone else to agree to emissions cuts. No matter what happens, any successful plan to reduce global emissions will require buy-in from these three nations which, along with the European Union, account for almost 60 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions nowadays. Here's a look at emissions by the world's top polluters compared to everyone else over the last two decades.

Two big Andean elections: This Sunday, Ecuadorians go to the polls for the second time this year in a close presidential runoff, while Peruvians will vote in the first round of their own presidential election. In Ecuador, the matchup is between the leftwing-populist frontrunner Andrés Arauz, who has pledged to blow up the country's IMF agreements and boost national oil production, and Guillermo Lasso, a pro-business candidate who is seen as the choice of continuity with the current market-friendly government. Voter abstention is likely to be high, and the final result could very well be close and contested in a polarized country that was struggling with massive social unrest even before the pandemic struck. Meanwhile in Peru — which recently went through three presidents in the space of a week — the candidate field is hugely fragmented. Those with a decent shot to make it to the second round include "change" candidates like the leftist former lawmakers Yohny Lescano and Verónica Mendoza, as well as the prominent neoliberal economist Hernando De Soto, who has recently risen in the polls. Former soccer star George Forsyth is also in the mix, as is Keiko Fujimori, daughter of authoritarian former president Alberto Fujimori. Both of this Sunday's elections will serve as a kind of bellwether for the political mood in a region that has been devastated by the public health and economic impact of the pandemic.

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Nasal sprays, oral vaccines, and other new types of COVID-19 vaccines may be ready soon, according to Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist at the World Health Organization. She previews some of these needle-less vaccines and notes that the possibility of being able to store vaccines at room temperature could be a game-changer for vaccinating poorer nations. The advantage of nasal sprays, she explains, is that they "would generate local mucosal immunity in addition to systemic immunity." Dr. Swaminathan's conversation with Ian Bremmer is featured on the latest episode of GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting this Friday, April 9. Check local listings.

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