Voices: Gordon Brown is right – the vaccine rollout is a stain on all our souls

‘Will Sigma, whenever it emerges, drive home the point?’  (Getty Images)
‘Will Sigma, whenever it emerges, drive home the point?’ (Getty Images)

I misread the end of this paragraph about renaming Covid variants with Greek letters as “while avoiding Sigma”. I thought, “damn right, if it gets to Sigma we really are in trouble”.

The above is a tweet, posted in May, by Kit Yates, an author and mathematical biologist at the University of Bath, in response to a Reuters story about assigning coronavirus variants Greek letters to “simplify discussion and pronunciation while avoiding stigma”.

And, well, oh dear. Looks like we really are in trouble. It seems likely that the World Health Organisation (WHO) will once again skip a couple of Greek letters for the next nasty as it did with Nu (sounds too much like “new”) and Xi (because it’s a common name) to get to Omicron.

Pi and Rho, the next couple in line, are well known for their use in mathematics and science, and so it’s a good bet that Sigma may bear the stigma of naming the next variant of concern. It may already be out there.

The latest statistics from the WHO say that 57 per cent of the world’s population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. Some 8.85bn doses have been administered globally, and 34.51m are being administered each day. Yay: humanity in the battle against the virus? Um, no.

Former prime minister Gordon Brown, for whom the term “statesman” is entirely appropriate, has described the global vaccination rollout as a “stain on our soul”.

With good reason: most of those doses have gone to high and middle income countries. Lots of us in the former have had three of them (myself included). By contrast, just 8.1 per cent of people in low-income countries, classified as having a per capita gross national incomes of $1,045 or less in 2020, have received at least one dose.

Omicron was first discovered in South Africa. But South Africa, an upper middle income country – per capita GNI of $4,096 to $12,695 (£3,055 to £9,470), is very good at gene sequencing. As I’ve written previously, it did the world a solid by raising the alarm, and not for the first time.

But we don’t know if South Africa, which has got at least one dose into the arms of nearly a third of its people, is where it first emerged. We can’t say with any certainty.

What we do know is that partially – or wholly – unvaccinated populations are catnip to a microbe that has already proven its ability to mutate its way around the world’s patchy defences, and is being given every assistance in doing that through the self-centred foot-dragging of wealthy nations when it comes to boosting the defences of the world’s poor.

That’s before we get to the moral outrage of our stockpiling lifesaving shots, while leaving the less well off to face the full force of the virus without the defences that are readily available to anyone that wants them here.

I felt that force of the first Covid variant before there even was a vaccine. Trying to breathe with a brick on my chest was fairly horrible in a warm house with plenty of food delivered by friends and Netflix in the background to help take my mind off it.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to experience what I did in a favela on the outskirts of a teaming city, somewhere in the global south.

The WHO has said similar things to Brown, albeit without the poetic language, telling wealthy countries that they “cannot boost their way out of the pandemic” and accusing them of worsening vaccine inequality.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

Imagine, for a moment, if a fleet of alien spaceships decided to use Sub-Saharan Africa as their base for the conquest of Earth. You’d expect the world’s great powers to put their heads together and come up with a co-ordinated military response in an attempt to send the little green men packing before they got any further or killed any more people.

Yet, faced with a microbial enemy that has sent successive waves of its forces out to plunder and kill, the rich world has largely turned its back on its neighbours, with the exception of close to expiry date surpluses from its booster programmes (Nigeria has reported having to destroy a bunch that had past the use-by date).

So yes, damn right, we’re in trouble and it is a stain on our souls. Will Sigma, whenever it emerges, drive home the point? Has Omicron?