• The Gender Security Project

The Iceberg that is Vaccine Apartheid

Updated: May 3

By Kirthi Jayakumar



Image: In 1986 The Monument against Apartheid and Racism by Dutch sculptor Pépé Grégoire was revealed by mayor Ed van Thijn at Krugerplein in Amsterdam East to celebrate the opening of the ANC (African National Congress) office in Amsterdam. The relation between arm and leg stands for human unity in diversity. The unnatural separation is the deliberate denial of that unity. The statue is placed in the Transvaal neighbourhood, which has a historical bond with South-Africa. (Source)


Amidst the many things the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare, the gaping chasm between the privileged and the marginalized remains at the forefront: be that in terms of caste, race, gender, and even nations. We see this playing out in the dynamics around vaccination: rich, wealthy nations have had a hold over the technical knowhow and production mechanisms to both manufacture and use vaccines, to the point that they’re covering large swathes of their populations, while several countries are still waiting to vaccinate their people.


Beyond the Tip of the Iceberg

While the vaccine apartheid is what evidently meets the eye, the structural and systemic violence that has both normalized and enabled this to take place goes much deeper. It took a long time for the racism around the nomenclature of the virus to be both called out and actioned. Even if the World Health Organisation made no bones about dissociating the point of origin, racism was rife from Donald Trump to Indians who used the name “Corona” to target people from North East India with racist attacks. While inappropriate nomenclature like “British variant” were also used callously, the racist violence that accompanied the targeted name-calling around China and Wuhan was never in the picture. COVID hate crimes targeting Asian people remains commonplace even today.


Within nations, the discrimination and racism targeting particular bodies reflect these inequalities. For instance, vaccines were tested on people without their consent. In Madhya Pradesh, India, victims of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy were subject to vaccine tests without their consent, and without even knowing that they were part of the trials. Most of them, illiterate and belonging to severely disadvantaged sections of society, were told that they were getting vaccinated, and were given Rs. 750 as payment for taking part. Post-roll out, vaccines are accessible to those who have access to a phone or the Internet: which already means several sections of the population are excluded.


In South Africa, people from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg protested, saying that they did not want Africans to be used as guinea pigs to test the vaccine. Bizarrely, a Reuters report called them “anti-vaccine protesters” despite quoting one of the protesters who made it clear that he was opposed “to the vaccine being tested on poor people.”


Indigenous people in Canada were portrayed as being an impediment to vaccination, citing their “vaccine hesitancy” and “vaccine fears.” The truth that colonization and the histories of medical testing, experimentation, and invasive procedures being implemented on indigenous bodies without consent, however, was not acknowledged. Aside from sensationalism, there was no substance to the reporting, as they were “no more hesitant than non-Indigenous Canadians.” Even as the Canadian government prioritized vaccinations for the Indigenous people, a wealthy Canadian couple flew in a chartered plane under an emergency measures legislation to Beaver Creek, where they pretended to be hotel workers to get their vaccines – effectively pushing aside the members of White River First Nation in Beaver Creek.


These pieces of the puzzle come together to create the big picture that vaccine apartheid is. While this is not to question science or well tested methods of research in producing medicine and inoculation, it is definitely something we must think about: How many of us are willing to entertain the idea of traditional medicine or indigenous medicine possibly having a solution to offer to a disease that has brought the planet to a grinding halt? This is not to mean a blanket assumption that a proposed solution must be actioned without testing for efficacy, impact, and side effects, all of which can be evaluated just as we test a vaccine we develop in the lab; for example, as Siddha medicine’s Kabasura Kudineer was tested through pilot studies – with a clear expectation set for what it can help with. A cause for concern, of course, remains that capitalism may coopt a solution that traditional wisdom produces: and perhaps shut out the community that produced it in the first place.


Capitalists in Charge

The world’s largest pharmaceutical companies hold the technical knowhow for vaccine production, and yet, haven’t shared this knowledge that has the potential to save the planet. Rich nations are their first consumers: for obvious reasons. The US has held onto massive amounts of vaccine doses, of which it shared 4m AstraZeneca vaccine doses with Canada and Mexico. The Guardian reported that 30 countries have not even received a single vaccine dose. The issue isn’t so much about the inadequacy of supply as it is of knowledge-sharing. As a historical colonizer of knowledge appropriation (just think about what it did with yoga and turmeric), capitalism is selfish about sharing knowledge and hides behind patents.


Compulsory licensing can pave the way for these patents to stop being an obstacle: it means that a government would allow another manufacturer to produce a patented product or process without the consent of the patent owner, or makes use of the patent-protected invention itself. By this, a nation that has access to the technical knowledge for vaccine manufacture, should typically prioritize sharing the vaccines with the world. Some have called for the suspension of patent laws altogether, so the knowledge can be shared. Some argue on the challenges around manufacturing vaccines outside of the US and Europe – and argue that a change in the approach to patenting will not make much of a difference. This calls for greater sharing and decentralization of vaccine manufacturing and storage capacities world over.


And yet, all we see is the normalization of capitalist ownership over a vaccine. For nations that have normalized “humanitarian intervention,” the world’s rich nations sure haven’t any interest in the humanitarian if it doesn’t come with a military tag attached.

Responding through Feminist Mutual Aid

Any response to the global pandemic cannot start from a place informed by a saviour complex. It isn’t about a country with privilege and wealth doing any other country in the world a favour by opening up access to, here, a vaccine. The Westphalian State has been far from effective in delivering on its dues to human security – and the pandemic only reaffirms this truth. In light of governance failures, the rise of the community as a response: be that in amplifying calls for help or verifying providers and avenues to respond to those calls, civil society has emerged as a vital force in sustaining life, literally.


Called “mutual aid,” as defined by Peter Kropotkin, this mechanism is “Bottom of Form”a form of solidarity-based support, in which communities unite against a common struggle, rather than leaving individuals to fend for themselves.” It isn’t new: generations of underserved and disadvantaged communities have built powerful solidarities across multiple lines to support each other. In the words of prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba to the New Yorker: “It’s not community service — you’re not doing service for service’s sake. You’re trying to address real material needs.”


It goes without saying that mutual aid is feminist foreign policy in action. It is a powerful means of subverting structural violence to centre communities that are constantly marginalized, discriminated against, and oppressed. Mutual aid paves the way to build community, to make all truth actionable, and to bring together people who face systemic oppression in a network of solidarity, in a cohesive system of mutual dependency, rather than dependency on institutional and structural apparatuses.


In a world where we see the normalization of capitalist ownership over a vaccine, where nations that have normalized “humanitarian intervention,” sure haven’t any interest in the humanitarian if it doesn’t come with a military tag attached, where governance doesn’t think twice to harm the very people it is supposed to protect, mutual aid can go a long way in responding to needs on ground.

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