The continent of Africa, particularly South Africa, experienced a severe explosion of COVID-19 last August. Only 1.8% of the country’s 60 million inhabitants were vaccinated. Hundreds of people died every day.

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During those same weeks, workers at a pharmaceutical factory in the South African city of Port Elizabeth, completed the preparation of millions of Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

But those doses were not intended for residents of South Africa or other countries on the continent. Instead they were packed, loaded onto cargo ships and sent to the European Union. In Europe, it should be noted, about 60% of the population were vaccinated at this time.

At the time of writing, the gloomy picture seems to have been reversed. Europe is currently experiencing a severe eruption of COVID-19, with a rising death toll. This wave is attributed to variant B.1.1.529, also known as omicron. According to experts, the omicron variant has evolved over the past few months in South Africa.

Gordon Brown, former British Prime Minister and currently working for the World Health Organization, said about a week ago that, “our failure to hand over vaccines to people in the developing world has now returned to haunt us. The dangers were known in advance – but not enough was done.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa referred to the situation as “apartheid vaccines.”

A foregone failure

The danger of leaving such a significant portion of the world’s population exposed to the virus is well known. As the virus spreads, it changes. As it changes, variants are formed that may show greater resistance to vaccines.

It is therefore clear that the interest of every citizen in any of the richest countries of the world should be that the inhabitants of the poorest countries will be vaccinated, in tandem with mass vaccinations in the developed world.

But that did not happen. Of all vaccines given worldwide until mid-December 2021, only 3% were given to residents of poor countries. Only 7.6% of the citizens of these countries are now considered vaccinated. This low vaccination rate is what makes the World Health Organization expect at least another 5 million deaths from COVID-19.

The United States, Europe and the developed world have declared their desire to bridge inequality in vaccines, setting a target of vaccinating 40% of the population in poor countries by the end of the year. To this end, the COVAX vaccine program has been established for poor countries.

None of the rich countries participating in the initiative has met the vaccine quota it has committed to. Many of the vaccines that were nevertheless administered were close to “expired”, and the poor countries were unable to use them. 

Unlearned lessons

Certainly there are important lessons that all of humanity can learn from this situation – lessons that can be adopted in tackling the big challenges that still await us after the pandemic. But we are unlikely to draw the necessary conclusions, once again. After all, to learn something from the current situation one has to ask several unpleasant questions:

How is it possible that in a world capable of producing about 2 billion vaccine doses a month, the entire world population, about 7.75 billion people, is not vaccinated in less than four months?

How is it possible that the rich half of the world received three-quarters of the vaccines, and the poor half only received a quarter?

How is it possible that the world prefers to establish the largest leper colony in history in the continent of Africa, to dealing with the pandemic together?

And how is it possible that the capitalist system prefers intellectual property laws and patents that protect the profits of pharmaceutical companies, rather than providing urgent and immediate help to millions whose lives depend on it?

The real challenge: climate change

I have already laid out the bad news above – these questions will probably not be answered honestly. At least not in the near future. Now for the really bad news: coronavirus is a small crisis, compared to the climate crisis. Following global warming, various parts of the world will become uninhabitable. Hundreds of millions of refugees are expected. The number of natural disasters, storms, floods, heat waves and fires, is expected to rise dramatically. Rising sea levels will submerge islands and coastal cities.

Those who will suffer the most from global warming are, once again, the people living in poor countries. Precisely those countries that did not contribute to the crisis, and emitted few carbon emissions into the atmosphere, are likely to absorb the brunt of the damage. They are also likely to have weaker tools to deal with this reality.

Floods in Germany, July 2021. (Photo: The AP/Michael Probst)

Those in the richer parts of the world who believe that with the help of their money they will be able to evade the damage of the climate crisis are wrong.

Not just because climate damage will encompass the entire world. The influx of refugees from the battered areas, the wars over the dwindling resources required for subsistence, all of these are likely to undermine the social and global order. There is no individual who will not be affected by the climate crisis, and it does not matter how much their fate has improved today.

A call for sustainability

However, there is also good news. It may require a great deal of optimism and faith to see it as such, but it must not be given up. The attitude that the world has refrained from adopting during the pandemic may serve us to deal with the climate crisis. Will the price we paid for refusing to see the connection between the developed world and the developing world open our eyes to dealing with the future?

As someone who has been working for years in an organization that promotes a vision of sustainability, I have often received condescending looks from decision makers and “business leaders.” I mean, no one will say that the “environment” is not important to them, but all these nature-lovers, tree-huggers, etc., are freaks, right?

I did not shy away from condescension, which is basically a cover-up for indifference to the prices that the weak pay and will continue to pay. Sustainability is the only path that may show the way to a comprehensive approach to the real challenges ahead.

Sustainability is the recognition, a recognition that has been so lacking in the coronavirus crisis so far, that the richer part of the world today resembles those unfortunate souls who were so content with their seats aboard the Titanic. Sustainability is evidence that includes the individual, society and nature. Instead of the model of competition and profit for the few, sustainability poses the challenge of continuous and beneficial existence for all.

So maybe the detractors will keep rolling their eyes when we explain to them that we are all “one living human organism.” But more and more people today are realizing that this is not a “hippie” slogan. Rather, it is a sober and logical view of reality, a vision that needs to be adopted to deal with the pandemic and the climate crisis. The time has come for sustainability.

Rony Erez is the co-CEO of the Heschel Center for Sustainability.

This article was translated from Hebrew by Lily Siradzki.