Barbara Unmüßig: "No country is safe until all countries are safe from Covid-19"

Keynote speech

Given the global dimension of the Covid-19 pandemic and the fact that the number of mutations is increasing worldwide, we must overcome our selfish national and economic interests. Successful pandemic response requires coordinated global action based on coordinated decision-making, fair and transparent vaccine delivery processes and know-how sharing.


Keynote speech by Barbara Unmüßig, President, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, at the event "No one is safe until everyone is safe: Global perspectives on Covid-19 vaccination", on 28 June 2021.


Ladies and Gentlemen, dear guests and dear friends,

Thank you for having me here today.

Let me start by saying that the current vaccine policy is not only a global health issue but very much so a matter of social and economic justice.

From my perspective, at least three bigger dimensions of justice are involved:

  • The first one is around global fair and just distribution of vaccines –vaccine justice.
  • The second one is related to the short-, mid- and long term social and economic impacts, if people are not vaccinated and economic recovery is at stake.
  • The third dimension looks at the current global vaccination policy and how it influences and determines international relations and the perception of international justice and solidarity.

In Europe and the US, the pandemic situation is slowly easing up.

We can again enjoy our freedoms, socialize, children can go back to school, economic life is getting a boost.

All this is made possible not because the pandemic is over, but because of the availability of a range of vaccines and the ongoing vaccination campaigns.

In Germany, nearly 50% of adults have received the first dose. The U.S. aims to have 70% of its adult population vaccinated by July 4 2021.

According to the World Health Organization, some two billion doses of vaccine have been used so far. 75 percent of them in just ten countries.

China, the US and India, have consumed 60 percent of all vaccine doses.

Yet in most countries of the Global South, the reality is quite different.

In Africa, the third Corona wave with new virus variants is currently raging - in some areas worse than ever before.

Less than one percent of the African population is fully vaccinated to date.

The poorest countries have not received even half a percent of the available vaccines.

Such an uneven distribution not only leaves millions unprotected against the virus, but also allows deadly variants to emerge and circulate worldwide.

In terms of vaccine equity a huge gap between richer and poorer countries persists.

It seems as if the old North-South divide is back. Privileges for the richer countries at the expense of lives in the global South.

The bottom line is that it moves us even further away from global social and economic recovery.

For the majority of developing countries the low vaccination rate is a disaster and will deepen the already tremendous economic and social crisis.

Many developed economies could absorb this unprecedented shock using unconventional monetary policy and massive stimulus spending.

This path was not open for many developing countries that have limited resources and institutional capacity to support their economies. The coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic fallout have exacerbated high debt levels in many low- and middle-income countries, hampering their ability to respond to the health and economic crisis and climate-proof their economies.

According to the UN, far more than 200 million people worldwide could be driven into extreme poverty by 2030.

According to Food and Agriculture Organization, COVID-19 may have increased the total number of undernourished people in the world by more than 100 million in 2020 compared to pre-pandemic levels.

The International Chamber of Commerce argues, the cost could be as much as 9.2 trillion US-Dollar if developing countries are not given independent access to Covid 19 vaccines. Half of these costs would be incurred in developed countries.

This is why a scale up of vaccine production and broad distribution of vaccines is both: an urgent economic necessity, and a moral imperative.

Together with the World Health Organisation, WHO and WTO, the World Bank Group and IMF have urged international support for 50 billion US dollar of financing aimed at achieving more equitable access to vaccines and thus helping to tackle the pandemic everywhere.

The Covax initiative was launched at the beginning of the pandemic for precisely this reason, among others.

However, Covax is still not equipped with the appropriate means and vaccine doses. Initially, Europe and the USA prevented this on the premises of Europe first and America First. Industrialized countries were buying up vaccines that were actually intended for poorer countries as deliveries via Covax.

It was only early this year that vaccine shipments via Covaxarrived in several countries in Africa and Asia. But as early as April, some of the poorest countries were warned to expect delays due to sudden vaccine shortage. India as Covax's largest supplier and hit hard by the pandemic was suddenly in need of international support itself.

It is good news that US manufacturer Moderna announced plans to supply Covax with up to 500 million vaccine doses, most of which, however, would be delivered in 2022.

We see: Covax's ability to act depends on the favour of individual vaccine producers. And once they fail as suppliers, vaccination campaigns are in danger or coming to a complete standstill.

I would like now to also address some aspects on how the pandemic and the vaccination policies influence and determine international relations. 

Now that their own population has been supplied with enough vaccines, one could almost say that a "public image contest" has started among Western countries on who will deliver most vaccine doses to the Global South.

The German foreign minister is even speaking of “international solidarity in action” and boasts Germany as the second largest donor to the Covax platform.

Yet the initial Western self-interest and Covax's unreliability have fuelled the so-called vaccine diplomacy of China and Russia. Both used it in early stages of the pandemic to increase their political influence by offering favourable conditions for vaccines for selected “friends and neighbours” and thus attempting to create new geopolitical realities.  

The G7 countries recently decided to deliver 2.3 billion vaccine doses to poorer countries by the end of the next year. This step comes with plenty of delay, but at least it is coming.

However, the announced quantities are far from sufficient. 10 to 15 billion doses of vaccine are needed to protect the world's population and stop the spread of the virus.

The later rich countries share doses, the less time recipient countries have to vaccinate. To keep in mind: vaccines have an expiration date.

In addition to much faster distribution of vaccines, it is essential to increase vaccine production. One way to do this is by lifting patents, licenses, copyrights and other trade barriers. Unfortunately, we already have lost a lot of time here.

As all of you know, last October India and South Africa submitted a proposal at the WTO to suspend patent protection for vaccines, at least temporarily.

More than hundred WTO member countries have endorsed it. It came with surprise that US-government has broken out of the phalanx of opposing industrialized countries and is signalling its agreement.

The EU is divided. The German government has been criticizing the decision of the Biden administration. Pharmaceutical companies are up in arms against it. It is uncertain, whether the text-based negotiations on the TRIPS waiver proposal that recently started in the WTO, can result in the awaited suspension of patents.

The pharmaceutical industry always argues against patent lifting with high developing cost for medicine and vaccines. But in the case of the COVID 19 vaccines, governments spent billions of Euros in order to enable and to speed up the development of vaccines.

I think it is more than adequate to put conditions on such enormous public funding. Especially, in global public health emergencies and humanitarian crisis vaccines should not be a commodity but rather be considered as a common good.

A further argument of the vaccine manufacturers and politicians supporting them is that vaccine production is too complex for rapid replication in developing countries. Yes, it is technology and knowledge intensive. But there are enough potential manufacturers in the world.

A group of health experts recently suggested that, companies in South Africa, Senegal, and Egypt could quickly retool factories to produce mRNA vaccines if they get access to the technology and know-how. There are also world-class producers in Asia and Latin America.

And of course, successful and sustainable pandemic response must include a whole range of measures. The international community must join forces urgently to provide developing countries with all the necessary materials for vaccination campaigns and testing centres. We need contingency plans to deal with viral mutations and supply shortages, as outlined in the recently released joint plan by the IMF, the WHO and the World Bank. The plan also states clearly that any obstacles to expanding vaccine supply must be removed.

I emphasize once again: Speed is of the essence. Given the global dimension of this pandemic and the fact that the number of mutations is increasing worldwide, we must overcome our selfish national and economic interests. Successful pandemic response requires coordinated global action based on coordinated decision-making, fair and transparent vaccine delivery processes and know-how sharing. This would be real “solidarity in action”.