Everyone, Everywhere

Sophie Cousins

The first recorded polio epidemic was in Sweden in the 1880s, though inscriptions in Egypt suggest the disease dates back to ancient times. In 1916 the virus devastated New York and swathes of the north-eastern United States, killing six thousand people, mostly children, and leaving thousands more paralysed. Unlike other deadly epidemic diseases, such as tuberculosis, polio appeared to have no correlation to poverty. ‘Once the terror stalks, mere wealth cannot buy immunity,’ as the Ladies Home Journal put it in 1935. ‘The well-fed babies of the boulevards are no safer than gamins from the gutter from the mysterious universality of the crippling midget, once it’s on the rampage.’

Western experts thought polio was a disease of modernity, a sign of advancement. But it soon became apparent that poor countries in the Global South were affected too. What epidemiologists termed ‘modern polio’ had been brought on by sanitary advances in Europe and the United States which meant people were less likely to contract the disease as infants and so (if they survived) to gain immunity, which led to intermittent large outbreaks among a more susceptible older population. Countries from India to Egypt, meanwhile, still faced endemic ‘old polio’, leaving uncounted numbers of children dead or paralysed.

When two vaccines arrived against polio in the 1950s, countries including Australia and the US declared the war against the virus over. It took longer in the rest of the world: the WHO announced that polio had finally been eradicated in India in 2014. Pakistan and Afghanistan were the only countries where the disease was still endemic in 2019.

Like polio, Covid-19 has ravaged all types of bodies in all types of places, all across the world. The poor have been more likely to be worse affected, but the privileged have not been able to buy themselves out of it altogether. The disease has infected prime ministers and presidents, celebrities and Olympians. Ten days ago, a ninety-year-old woman in the UK was the first person in the world to be vaccinated against it. The development of the vaccines in less than a year is an incredible feat. But along with the announcement that the UK was beginning its vaccination programme – with other wealthy countries soon to follow suit – came the news that rich countries are hoarding vaccine doses.

According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, wealthy countries with 14 per cent of the world’s population have secured 53 per cent of the most promising vaccines. Canada is the worst offender: it has bought enough jabs to vaccinate every Canadian five times. The Alliance estimates that 90 per cent of people in seventy low-income countries are unlikely to be vaccinated against the virus next year.

‘No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket,’ Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, said. ‘But unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 for years to come.’

There is a risk that Covid-19 will become yet another disease, like malaria or tuberculosis, that overwhelmingly affects those who live in low-income countries. To prevent that happening, one place to start would be India and South Africa’s proposal to the World Trade Organisation Council that intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments be suspended until everyone, everywhere is protected.


  • 19 December 2020 at 6:57am
    Graucho says:
    If it wasn't for murderous attacks on personnel carrying out polio vaccinations by muslim fundamentalists the disease would be history by now. Centuries on from Galileo and religious bigots are still doing their worst to impede human progress. As the Covid-19 vaccines are rolled out expect the same actors with the support of their evangelical Christian cousins on the hard right to do their all to make the program fail.

  • 19 December 2020 at 1:32pm
    John Haskell says:
    Any of these countries could license Sputnik V tomorrow.

    So why don't they?

  • 20 December 2020 at 8:31pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    Oh for goodness sake, yes “prime ministers and presidents, celebrities and Olympians” have indeed caught Covid.
    None have died.
    This is a nasty disease that is dangerous for elderly people and those with certain other respiratory or cardiac conditions.
    For most people, most young, fit, healthy people, it is no more dangerous than crossing the road. In the UK to date thee have been fewer than 600 deaths in under 45s from Covid.
    Let’s shield the vulnerable and let the rest of the population out. Someone has to earn the money to pay for “our” NHS after all.

    • 21 December 2020 at 4:12pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      Not being sure of the basis of your chosen cut-off age -- which seems arbitrary -- I would note only that the median age in the UK is close to 40:

      An implication of what you're saying, then, is that based simply on age, about half the population is "vulnerable".

      And one might ask: "vulnerable" to what? Unless I'm misinformed, there seems no way to judge which of those "young, fit, healthy" people are likeliest to suffer long-term consequences. Covid-related heart or lung damage shows, in some cases, every sign of being permanent. You can see -- I hope -- why people are unwilling to risk that.

    • 22 December 2020 at 11:41am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Bob Beck
      Well I chose under 45s in an attempt to demonstrate how rare the disease is in those groups. I could have chosen under 55s where the mortality rate is slightly higher but still only just over 6,000. Each of these 6,000 deaths is, of course, a tragedy but is that total enough to justify a complete trashing of our economy?
      As to risk of long Covid, let younger people make their own choices; don’t compel them.
      I note a government minister speculating that we can get back to normal only when over-60s and the vulnerable have all been vaccinated. So even the government accepts that s large proportion of the population can get back to normal without vaccination; why not isolate (voluntarily) the vulnerable and get back to normal NOW?

    • 22 December 2020 at 3:47pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      At this time of the rolling year, I feel some sneaking sympathy for the unreconstructed Ebenezer Scrooge -- but not when he says "if they be like to die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

      Harsh? Maybe, but I don't think so. On the one hand, you decry "compulsion," but on the other, suggest a sort of calibration -- how many lives, or what proportion of the population, can or should be sacrificed for something called "the economy." The kindest term I can find for that is "incoherent."

    • 22 December 2020 at 7:11pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Bob Beck
      No, I do not propose ‘sacrificing’ any portion of the population to save the economy. I propose effectively shielding that part of the population that is most vulnerable to death from the virus and allowing the rest to continue with normal life, accepting all the usual risks to health, including this one. Doesn’t that simply pre-figure the situation that will obtain after vaccination of the vulnerable?
      I believe it must be easier (and more beneficial) to quarantine a targeted group than quarantine the whole population.
      And I may have struck perhaps a cynical, unfeeling note with tefetence merely to the economy; to be clear I mean a return to (or towards) normal life with all its attendant non-monetary aspects which are at least as beneficial as wealth to health and happiness.

    • 22 December 2020 at 7:22pm
      Ian Butler says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      You ignore the most elementary fact; the 'low' number of fatalities in those arbitrary age ranges are _because_ of the various lockdowns and mitigation initatives. Without those, the numbers would be horrific even by the standards of your questionable ethics.

    • 23 December 2020 at 9:39am
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Ian Butler
      My ethics are always up to be questioned of course but, as the government (backed by health professionals) has said that normality can begin to return once the aged and the vulnerable have been vaccinated, then I infer that they too believe that the youngare at very low risk, with or without lockdowns.

    • 23 December 2020 at 12:26pm
      Graucho says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      This really is off the topic of vaccine distribution, but suffice it to say that if hospitals are overwhelmed and we are reduced to corridor care and queueing ambulances, then everyone is at risk.

    • 23 December 2020 at 3:56pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Graucho
      Agreed. Let’s leave it there.
      Merry Christmas!

  • 29 December 2020 at 9:57pm
    Bob Beck says:
    I'm neither a nationalist, nor an apologist for the government of Canada (where I live), but that government does say it will donate unneeded vaccine supplies to poorer nations:

    The devil, presumably, will show his face whenever the details are forthcoming.

Read more