equality health race

The structural racism of global vaccine access

Last week the first people to be vaccinated against Covid-19 got their jabs in Britain. Politicians have made a big deal of this, with one going so far as to say that this was because “we’re a much better country” – the kind of playground nonsense that makes me long for more feminist leadership in politics.

While some countries may have more scientists and more efficient institutions for certifying new medicines, it does help to be rich.

A report from Oxfam last week highlighted the fact that rich countries like Britain have signed multiple agreements with pharmaceutical companies in order to guarantee a vaccine as soon as possible. This means that they may have far more than they need. At the same time, countries that aren’t able to keep up with this bidding war may not be able to secure vaccines for their citizens.

Britain has secured three times more vaccines than it needs to treat the entire country. Canada has enough on order to vaccinate everyone five times over.

Meanwhile, 67 countries will be falling back on a pool of vaccines that have been reserved for lower income countries, which will not be enough to cover even medical staff and the most vulnerable. In the world’s poorest countries, there may be enough vaccines for just 1 person out of 10.

A quick scan of those 67 countries reveals them to be largely in Africa, central Asia and the Middle East. Bar the Ukraine, they are almost entirely people of colour. As a general rule, it will be rich white people who get the vaccine first, globally. Poorer black people will be at the back of the queue, if they get a vaccine at all. There is a racist inequality to the global supply of Covid vaccines.

Having written about this last week, here’s another good example of how structural racism is about outcomes, not intent. There has been no deliberate effort to exclude black Africans from the Covid response. It is not about racial prejudice, but about underlying structural inequalities. If things are left to the market, it will be the richest that hoover up the supply, buying more than they need while pricing out the poor. And the richer countries are often the white countries.

The pattern of existing racial inequalities imprints itself on the new crisis, just as it has done for climate change, and reinforces it again.

There are currents working the other way. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine project has stipulated that two thirds of vaccines are for developing countries, with China and India signed up for most of that. Some countries are buying stock that is intended for overseas aid. We may yet see excess stock redistributed, and French President Emmanuel Macron has been arguing for some kind of ‘donation mechanism’ to ensure that happens.

Right now however, the global response to Covid-19 puts white people first. And just as racism requires anti-racism, not just ‘not being racist’, fairer access to vaccines will take deliberate decisions to include, not just leaving it to the market.

Update: for those inclined to mutter that this is the kind of thing that Oxfam would say, here’s the Economist making the same point:


  1. I am in complete agreement and am working on a project examining this very issue. Clearly there is an inherent structural racism problem behind enforced scarcity through IP laws.
    Just wanted to flag that I think it’s a slight inaccuracy to imply more women in politics would make inherent make substantive changes – maybe more traits traditionally associated with femininity? Link to an article on this distinction: https://newpol.org/the-red-herring-of-liberal-representational-feminism/

    1. Well that’s true, and Britain’s previous female prime ministers are good evidence that women don’t automatically make more compassionate leaders. I’ve tweaked that to say ‘more feminist leadership’, as that could come from either men or women. Thanks for flagging it up!

      Incidentally, I’ve just been reading my children ‘I Am Malala’ at bedtimes, and just yesterday we read about her taking Barack Obama to task over drone strikes – as mentioned in your linked article.

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