I long for the days of mask-free office hours and in-person lunch talks on physics concepts I pretend to understand, and with today’s second vaccine clinic, most of our campus will take an important step in that direction. I cannot escape the feeling, however, that something is wrong. Of course, the Indiana Department of Health is acting entirely within its jurisdiction to vaccinate college students, and the plan, with certain hiccups, is working. The elderly, immunocompromised, and front-line workers have had their chance to be vaccinated, and now it is our turn. This seems to be the most obvious next step.
And yet, I reflect on the considerably less fortunate situation of those outside our borders. As of April, richer countries had received 87% of the global vaccine supply, and a measly 0.2% of vaccines had arrived in low-income countries, per UN News. According to Dr. Eric Wetzel, Norman Treves Professor of Biology and Director of the Global Health Initiative, “[O]ur GHI partners in Peru will be lucky to get vaccinated before the end of the year.” Kenya is another example, with projections to have 30% of their population vaccinated…by 2023 (Collins, See How Rich Countries Got to the Front of the Vaccine Line). Inequitable vaccine distribution seems to be a fleeting thought in our country, and although it is important to remain conscious of inequities we face in the US, the privilege we have as Americans should not be disregarded.
The dilemma I wrestle with is that young, otherwise healthy Americans are a higher priority than vulnerable populations in less wealthy nations. Think back to the first vaccine clinic and imagine where else those >600 high-efficacy Pfizer vaccines could have gone instead of into the arms of healthy 18- to 22-year-olds. Less than a thousand vaccines may not have made a large enough epidemiological impact in an impoverished community abroad, but the gesture can be extrapolated to consider the impact that prioritizing those in deserving communities can have. Consider the often-used adage from Winston Churchill: “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Historically, poor countries have lacked the necessary support to serve the health needs of their communities. For example, multiple-drug resistant tuberculosis (MDRTB) has plagued parts of Africa and South America for decades. When I first learned about the issue, it was clear that the response was insufficient, lacking many of the necessary resources to maintain the spread of MDRTB. I also thought to myself, “This doesn’t involve me. It’s outside of my control.” Whether that feeling was true in the moment, the disparity we are witnessing with respect to vaccine distribution in 2021 certainly involves me. And it involves you.
What can we as undergraduate students do to make a noticeable impact? This is an important question with a complicated answer, but the best way forward is to continue pursuing vaccination, a call to action that may seem contrary to my argument thus far. We represent a relatively large congregate living community and allowing the virus to continue circulating, even on our intimate campus, opens the door for more transmissible or deadly variants. Additionally, even if the student body could craft a message convincing enough to get the right people’s attention, the prospect of shipping >600 vaccines to another country is a fantastical notion that likely has more red tape than you can imagine. So, I want to emphasize the great opportunity Friday’s second vaccine clinic represents. It will be a step towards the Wabash that the upperclassmen, faculty, and staff so dearly remember.
Once you are vaccinated—or if you have resisted the idea so far—think for a moment about those who dream to be in your place. For example, India, as of this week, is struggling to combat a major increase in cases and deaths and is in desperate need of vaccines and vaccination programs. COVAX, a program run by the WHO, is committed to equitable distribution of the vaccine, but like any other charitable organization, requires support. You may also be interested in Oxfam’s “People’s Vaccine,” a movement with an aim to make the vaccine available to everyone. Regardless, join me in continuing to research the obstacles affecting the most vulnerable and concrete ways to make a meaningful difference.
From President Feller’s most recent email: “Students, employees, and dependents who didn’t receive a first dose can still sign up to receive one this week by contacting Susan Albrecht or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.” There are also many opportunities to get vaccinated here in Crawfordsville.