Why Vaccine Equity is a Feminist Issue

Most low-income countries will have to wait until 2023 for widespread vaccine access. That whole time, the economic, education, health and social devastation to women and girls will get worse and more entrenched.

Officials of Jalandhar Civil Hospital in India hand over the vaccine to the staff of a community health center in January 2021. (Sarabjit Singh / Tribune India)

There is, unfortunately, no shortage of bad news for women these days. In the U.S., the pandemic’s recession has not relented for us—while we made some progress on unemployment in July, we’d need to see those same gains for the rest of the year to make up for the number of jobs we lost to COVID-19.

Globally, history tells us that the ongoing crises in Haiti and Afghanistan will fall more heavily on women.

And over all of this, the threat of the pandemic remains both in the U.S. with the rise of the Delta variant here, and globally with most of the world potentially waiting years for a vaccine. Inaction will have dire results: We could potentially lose generations of progress made for women and girls globally. We must solve the vaccine equity crisis to have a chance at solving all the rest.

How do we do that? As world leaders, Nobel Prize winners, and global health experts have been calling for, President Joe Biden must put his weight and influence behind America’s support for the World Trade Organization’s IP waiver. It was a huge step for the U.S. to back this waiver, but precious little has happened in the months since.

We in the U.S. must harness our considerable power to push other wealthy governments to back the waiver, while also transferring vaccine recipes and technology to lower-income countries. This would allow countries to produce their own vaccines and rapidly remedy the massive inequity we’re currently seeing in global vaccine access. Currently, 81 percent of vaccine doses have gone to wealthier countries, while less than 3 percent have gone to low-income ones.  

Those of us in wealthy countries must demand, organize and fight to end vaccine apartheid and fix the system that got us here. That includes reforming the monopolistic global medicines system, from drug development to distribution, to root out the structural inequities that have led to the vaccine apartheid we are seeing today. I witnessed the horrors of these inequities up close as a young legal aid attorney in India two decades ago.

One of the first clients I met were a couple and their three young children. As the young kids ran around my office, the parents told me that they both had HIV. The mother had only recently been infected, but knew she must ensure her childrens’ guardianship was transferred in the inevitable case of her death. The worst part of the situation is that the HIV medication to treat both her and her husband existed, but they were unable to afford it.

We are in a similar situation now, in which it’s estimated that at least two million children have already lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19. Many of those lost parents could have been saved with access to a vaccine.

Fortunately, there are many working to fight the vaccine apartheid that is exacerbating the suffering that women across the world are enduring from the pandemic. Among those groups is the Feminists for a People’s Vaccine coalition, comprised of activists and experts from around the world drawing attention to the fact that the vaccine equity fight is a gender equity fight. As I’ve written here before, fights around access to medicines always are. 

“Geography, wealth, income, gender, race, caste, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and other factors shape who has access and who has not, who will live and who will die,” according to The Feminists for a People’s Vaccine Campaign. (Facebook)

On our current course, most low-income countries will have to wait until 2023 for widespread access. That whole time, the economic, education, health and social devastation to women and girls will get worse and more entrenched. Women are overrepresented in industries decimated by COVID-19 and account for the majority of low-wage jobs that disappeared because of the pandemic. A recent U.N. Women report warned that a staggering 11 million girls may leave school due to effects of the pandemic. Previous crises suggest that many of them will not return. 

A prolonged medical crisis also means that women face far greater health risks. Globally, 70 percent of health workers and first responders are women, and in low-income countries that figure is often even higher. 

All these pandemic-induced setbacks also increase the risk of gender-based violence. A surge of up to triple the incidence of domestic and sexual abuse during the pandemic has been reported across the globe. The U.S. is no exception—a recent report by FreeFrom, a group that focuses on the nexus of intimate partner violence and economic security, found abuse survivors (overwhelmingly women) are four times more likely than the average adult to have faced food or housing insecurity in the past year. Survivors also report the pandemic has narrowed their already-slim options—from the stress of having fewer financial resources to slowed court proceedings delaying critical income like child support. 

This is a once-in-a-lifetime moment to change the course of history to finally bring an end to the pandemic and begin to focus on repairing what’s been lost—particularly for women. The ramifications of what we do right now will be felt for generations. It is time for all of us to step up and demand our leaders fight for women and girls both here, and across the world.

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Priti Krishtel is the co-founder of the Initiative for Medicines, Access & Knowledge (I-MAK), a nonprofit organization working to address structural inequities in how medicines are developed and distributed.