Skift Take

The pharmaceutical companies can afford to be selfish and put profit before community. But the travel industry can't, whether it realizes it or not.

Nearly a year since the start of global vaccine distributions and nearly six months since Skift’s first coverage on vaccine equity and its impact on the recovery of tourism, the needle hasn’t moved. Ten of the world’s richest countries are currently hoarding an excess of 870 million doses — the U.S. being the chief vaccine hoarder — of which approximately 241 million are estimated to expire by year end without any plan to redistribute them. Pharmaceutical companies also continue to prioritize rich nations in their distributions, as less than three percent of people in low income nations have been fully vaccinated against 60 percent in high income countries with one dose.

Those are the damning facts in a new report from Doctors Without Borders, in which the humanitarian organization points to an ongoing divergent economic recovery as the vaccination gap stays wide, and calls on the U.S. as well as all countries to act on the inequity in various ways. 

“In addition to developing a concrete dose redistribution timeline by the end of October, the US government must demand that Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna share mRNA vaccine technology and know-how with other manufacturers,” said Carrie Teicher, director of programs at Doctors Without Borders USA, in a press release.

Alongside the U.S. in vaccine hoarding are the UK, Germany, France, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, the report shows.

Indeed, while North America, Europe and parts of the Middle East are experiencing a recovery, tourism dependent destinations in low to middle income nations keep welcoming the vaccinated or tested in spite of their communities’ lack of access to inoculation, primarily, or a lack of time and funds for governments to address vaccine hesitancy on a larger scale. It’s caused predictable recent Covid surges in the Caribbean as well as Central and South America, where leaders have mostly been forced to rely on vaccine donations. 

With the U.S. reopening more widely in November to fully vaccinated international tourists while struggling with anti-vaxxers, and parts of Asia begin to confront the reality of living with Covid to get their tourism dependent economies going, it isn’t far fetched to think that future variants may cause fresh disruptions and prove once again that “Covid 19 anywhere is a problem everywhere,” as the Doctors Without Borders report put it.

It’s a preposterous ongoing scenario that points to the super privilege that travel is now and reeks of its colonial origins, as well as highlights the world’s deepening inequalities. But it’s also why the multitrack recovery of tourism will continue as will the uncertainty of what lies ahead, in turn affecting consumer confidence.

The World Health Organization’s Covax mechanism failed due to a lack of global solidarity, according to Doctors Without Borders, but that’s why the restart of travel has lacked uniformity. And it’s not just about goodwill —  vaccine equity could keep costing the global economy up to $1.2 trillion a year, while getting the pandemic under control through vaccines would contribute $9 trillion to the global economy by 2025, the report points out.   

Vaccine donation campaigns mask the core issues at the heart of vaccine inequity rather than solve them, while “vaccine tourism” simply fuels inequality by preventing excess doses from getting redistributed to neighboring countries in need rather than offering them to those who can afford to travel abroad for jabs. Support from just a handful of stakeholders, while critical, doesn’t match the magnitude of the issue.

As we approach yet another year of Covid, the data confirms that without global equitable vaccine distribution embraced as policy, there is no faster and sustainable return for tourism. Travel industry leaders in G7 nations can and must play a more meaningful role in advocating for vaccine equity. So the question remains, why isn’t their voice ringing louder on the key issue impacting the economic recovery and future of the industry? And if global solidarity is the cornerstone of tourism, then our industry will be deemed a failure in acting for the greater good. Just like Covax.

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Tags: coronavirus, coronavirus recovery, global tourism, vaccine equity

Photo credit: Crowds shopping in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in September Sean Foster / Unsplash

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