Ireland faces "a defining moment" if it chooses to vaccinate healthy young people against Covid-19 when healthcare workers and more vulnerable people in developing countries do not have have access to supply, World Health Organisation executive director of emergencies Dr Mike Ryan has said.
Dr Ryan called on wealthy nations to share their vaccine supplies, noting that “almost all of the vaccines that have been delivered in the world” were currently in 10 countries.
“If we stand by and allow frontline health workers and vulnerable people in developing countries to not be vaccinated while the rich north gets on with vaccinating perfectly healthy young people, then I hope then history books write that down,” he said.
Countries like Ireland do not need to abandon their strategies to protect their own but should balance their “duty and sense of solidarity to people everywhere”, he said. The world now has “a choice” to make around vaccination rollout which should be based on need, vulnerability and equity, not the ability to pay, he added
The moral hazard "for Ireland and for everyone else in Europe and across the world is, once we cover those individuals who are vulnerable in our society, we then at least begin to share with those in the world who don't have access to the vaccines," he said.
“The Irish people need to give permission to the Government, permission to the EU, permission to rich countries, political permission to say ‘yes, it’s ok. we’re not going to punish you at the next election because you shared a few vaccines with those who most need them’,”he said.
Dr Ryan was speaking after receiving Trócaire’s annual Romero prize which he was jointly awarded with Dr Lilian Otiso of the Kenyan healthcare provider LVCT in recognition of their work to protect vulnerable communities from Covid-19.
The world’s most vulnerable people have only been left “further behind” during the pandemic, he said. “No one should get sick or die just because they’re poor or because they cannot access to health service they need to save the lives of themselves or their loved ones.” Covid-19 has “served as an amplifier of global inequities and global injustice,” and has further highlighted how “intrinsically linked health and human rights are”.
Dr Ryan also warned that the pandemic had been used as an excuse by some to clamp down on fundamental freedoms and for stigma and marginalisation. “The fear and emotion of Covid-19 has been weaponised by some for political short term gain. We should never ever let that happen again.”
Dr Ryan criticised the “individualism” that had defined many western policy decisions during the pandemic and called on leaders to “act collectively” and show “unity and solidarity” in fighting the virus.
Globalisation and governments’ fixation on economic growth is pushing the natural world to its limits and forcing people to migrate from their homes because of climate stress, said Dr Ryan. “We are creating the conditions in which epidemics flourish, much like in the medieval times and the city states of Europe; as they grew they became cesspits of contagion.”
Without changes in our behaviour, our children will wake up one day to a far more destructive pandemic which could “bring our civilization to it’s very knees. I hope that never happens and we have choices now that can ensure that doesn’t happen.”
While the international vaccine rollout is “massively important”, it should not replace measures such as hand washing and physical distancing in trying to suppress the virus, said Dr Ryan.
Vaccinating the most vulnerable who are likely to be hospitalised or die if they contract the virus, along with healthcare workers, will “take the tragedy out of the pandemic”, he said.
However, lifting restrictions must be “carefully managed”, he cautioned. “If we just open our societies the virus will spread again and will find all of those unvaccinated individuals.”
He commended the Irish people for their rapid response in shutting down the transmission of the virus on three occasions but called for leaders to be more “measured” and “flexible” in their response to the pandemic.
Covid-19 will become “just another virus in our lives” but it will also required “sustained monitoring”, he said. The world must use the “precious scientific tools we’ve developed in the fastest time in history” to realise the dream of leaving no person behind during the pandemic.
Dr Ryan questioned how much people had learned from the pandemic and warned that countries could not just move on and forget as has been the case with SARS, Ebola and Zika. “Our greatest failure was the failure to prepare. The seeds for those failures were set before the pandemic began.”