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How can Ireland stop global Covid-19 vaccine inequality?

Choctaw nation gave us $170 in Famine relief in 1847. It is a timeless moral lesson

I work in the national vaccination programme. It's one of the best jobs I've ever had. I work with amazing people across six vaccination centres. Ireland has one of the best vaccination programmes in the world. The Government, the Department of Health, the Health Service Executive, the National Public Health Emergency Team, the National Immunisation Advisory Committee, and the National Immunisation Office have all done a brilliant job. We're now vaccinating the last cohort in the current schedule. We've administered more than 6.8 million doses of vaccine; over 80 per cent of those over 12 years of age are now fully vaccinated. I should feel happy about my job. I do. And I don't.

I blame Liam Neeson partly for the way I feel. I keep hearing him on the radio, saying "Get a Vaccine, Give a Vaccine." Although he has a soft Ballymena accent on the Unicef ad, I also know he has a tough-guy Hollywood accent. Recently I started to imagine him saying "give a vaccine to someone in need" in the voice he uses on the phone in the Taken movies. Then I realised it was my conscience.

Another person I blame is Mike Ryan, the Irish doctor who leads the World Health Organisation's fight against Covid-19. Like Neeson, Ryan pulls no punches. When Ryan recently described global vaccine inequality on a webinar of Irish doctors as "grotesque", you could hear the collective gulp in the conference's cyberspace – followed by a thunderous silence.

I also blame Greta Thunberg who says that global vaccination against Covid-19 is a moral test about how we think about others. Because she's an activist, Thunberg knows how to simplify complex problems. If it's a test, then we're failing badly.

In 1847, not long after being forced to migrate from their traditional homelands along the notorious Trail of Tears, the Choctaw nation donated $170 for Famine relief in Ireland. This act of selfless generosity by people who had next to nothing themselves is remembered to this day. Now I’m starting to blame the Choctaw people for how I feel.

The person I blame most for upsetting me, however, is WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus when he recently appealed to countries planning to give booster doses to pause for two months and to share their vaccine supplies with countries still struggling to give first and second doses. Although he said he understood the concern of all governments to protect their people from the Delta variant, Ghebreyesus said "we cannot accept countries that have already used most of the global supply of vaccines using even more of it". Pointing out that vaccine coverage in Africa remains less than 2 per cent, he criticised "vaccine injustice and vaccine nationalism". As a doctor, it's hard to pretend the head of the WHO didn't say this.

When I’ve finished blaming everyone else, I finally blame myself for not speaking up.

There are few political brownie points, if any, to be earned for doing something about Covid-19 vaccine inequality

Ireland is a small country with a big reputation for international humanitarianism. We have the added advantages of never having been a colonial power and not being a superpower. We have no shortage of experts on vaccination. We have lots of contacts in the global pharmaceutical industry. Our health service is also highly dependent on doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals (including vaccinators) who come from parts of the world where there is poor access to vaccines; every day at work we see colleagues worrying about their families thousands of miles away. Everyone knows nobody is safe anywhere until everyone is safe everywhere.

Equipment and expertise

When you add all of these up, you realise we should be doing a lot more about global Covid-19 vaccine inequality. As well as sharing vaccines, we should be offering medical supplies, equipment and expertise – as well as lobbying for the suspension of intellectual property rights on vaccines and the ramping-up of production. The Irish Defence Forces have played a very important part in the national vaccination programme, and Ireland’s seat on the UN Security Council could provide the IDF with a unique opportunity to also make a significant contribution overseas. We should be a role model for other countries to follow.

We should also give money. The Unicef website says that with €75 you can protect 15 people from Covid-19. That’s a good return on investment in anyone’s book. Unicef is aiming to deliver more than two billion Covid-19 vaccines to 92 countries through the Covax scheme, initially prioritising healthcare workers, the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions. Two billion vaccines are just the starting point in vaccinating these populations.

There are few political brownie points, if any, to be earned for doing something about Covid-19 vaccine inequality, and politicians may well be criticised for being too flaithiúlach in giving away vaccines and money. Correct moral decisions are, however, not always popular ones. “What should Ireland do about Covid-19 vaccine inequality?” is a question our politicians must begin to answer now.

In deciding what to do, the Government should consult the experts in Nphet, Niac, NIO, the Department of Health, the HSE’s national Covid-19 senior management team, the HSE’s Global Health Programme, Irish Aid, the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, the Department of Foreign Affairs, Unicef and other non-government organisations working in the field – and the WHO. If you ask me, it should then set up the Government of Ireland’s International Covid-19 Vaccination Enterprise (“Give” for short).

In Midleton, Co Cork, there’s a stainless-steel sculpture named Kindred Spirits that commemorates what the Choctaw nation did for us back in 1847. I’d like to think that in one or two hundred years’ time, there’ll be a small plaque somewhere in the world, or a footnote in a history book, or a folk memory, that says the Irish nation helped others during the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.