The Fight Against Vaccine Apartheid Goes Global

The Fight Against Vaccine Apartheid Goes Global

The Fight Against Vaccine Apartheid Goes Global

Israel’s refusal to vaccinate Palestinians under occupation has stirred widespread outrage—and linked the struggle for justice in Palestine to struggles around the world.  


A little over a year into the pandemic, just about 27 percent of the population of the United States has been fully vaccinated. This is a feat that once seemed impossibly distant. Yet, despite some scrambling as Americans figure out exactly when and where they can be vaccinated, the Biden administration has made it clear that, within weeks, any American adult who wants a vaccine will be able to get one. Unfortunately, this is not the case in much of the world.

Disparities in vaccine distribution both within and between countries became an issue almost as soon as vaccine distribution started in late 2020. An equitable global approach would have seen health care workers and high-risk populations in all countries vaccinated before younger and healthier populations were vaccinated anywhere. This is not what happened. Instead, high-income countries bought up more than 75 percent of the vaccines in a rush to vaccinate their entire populations. While the United States has just agreed to release up to 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to other countries, it took massive pressure to get the Biden administration to budge and critics say the amount provided is not nearly enough. Some estimate that many of the world’s poorest countries won’t see significant vaccination campaigns at all until 2022 or later.

Moreover, even within the countries that stockpiled the vaccine, significant disparities persist. In the United States, for example, Black Americans are getting vaccinated at nearly half the rate of white Americans. The disparity for Hispanic Americans was even more pronounced. Americans in rural parts of the country, unhoused populations, and low-income populations of all races saw slower vaccination rates as well. And the same is true around the world: The most marginalized—the poor, migrants and refugees, racial and religious minorities—will likely be the last to get vaccinated.

The cost of these disparities is not theoretical. People are being denied life-saving medicine based solely because of where they were born or some other arbitrary characteristic. That’s exactly what makes vaccination such a potent rallying cry for health equity for the marginalized, including refugees, migrants, Indigenous communities, unhoused people, and incarcerated populations. It’s also being used as a new tool in advocating for the health rights of Palestinians.

In recent months, the Covid-19 vaccination debate has offered another powerful opportunity for human rights advocates to point to the consequences of Israel’s actions—or in this case, lack of action. While Israel has vaccinated more than 60 percent of its population, giving it the highest Covid-19 vaccination rate in the world; and while it is slated to have millions of excess vaccines, it has refused to supply shots to most Palestinians in the occupied territories, with the exception of those with Israeli work permits. The Palestinian Authority, while working to coordinate vaccine donations and procure small shipments themselves, has not done an effective job in rallying global support for equity. As a result, just about 5 percent of the Palestinian population has been vaccinated, despite skyrocketing infection and mortality rates.

Israel has received global condemnation for its unwillingness to vaccinate the 5 million Palestinians living in the occupied territories. As the occupying power, it retains responsibility for Palestinian health; even the Oslo Accords, which do not supersede Israel’s obligations, mandate that the two sides work together in cases of infectious disease.

While unconditional support for Israel has long been an unwavering feature of the US political landscape, cracks are forming, including in Congress, despite the Biden administration’s tacit acceptance of some of former President Trump’s controversial policies and actions, like the movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem. Now, Israel’s refusal to provide vaccines to most Palestinians has only deepened those cracks. In mid-March, five senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to urge the State Department to push Israel to vaccinate Palestinians. A few days later, a similar letter from nearly 20 members of Congress followed. Both letters leaned on the legal, moral, and pragmatic reasons Israel should vaccinate Palestinians. But one letter, sent more than a month before by new congressman Jamaal Bowman, took a different approach.

Bowman started with a similar argument to many other advocates’, focusing on the health and legal arguments. However, his letter took a more personal turn: “As a Black man living in America, I know the feeling of being neglected by my government and society, of feeling like a second-class citizen or not a citizen at all, in my own home…. I know what it feels like to see white Americans in the wealthy part of my district get different resources and treatment, while just a few blocks away, Black Americans are neglected.”

Although criticized by some for this stance, Bowman’s letter speaks to an emerging strain of Palestinian advocacy in the United States and around the world, one which, in some respects, runs counter to the exceptionalization of Palestine that has defined some global solidarity efforts for years. The situation in Palestine is certainly unique in its entrenchment, its length, the power imbalance between the parties, and the discourse surrounding it. However, it is also, unfortunately, one of many global struggles for equity—and not merely for vaccines.

In connecting his reality to Palestinian reality, in de-exceptionalizing Palestine, Bowman argues that Palestinians deserve vaccines not because they are Palestinians but because they are humans, being marginalized where they live by the powerful governance structures that control their lives. As a Black man, living in America, Bowman understands that dynamic all too well.

This borderless solidarity that forms coalitions between marginalized people can easily build off issues like vaccine equity. There are few instances in which a state can reveal its priorities more starkly than in a public health crisis; when a state is willing to leave some people behind, it becomes quite clear how it views that population. Israel’s neglect of the occupied Palestinian population during the pandemic, despite calls from the country’s own public health officials to have a more proactive response, provides an acute glimpse at what happens to marginalized populations in times of crisis. But it is certainly not the only example.

In his letter, Bowman builds on the work of decades of solidarity between Black Americans and Indigenous populations everywhere, including Palestinians. Fannie Lou Hamer, a renowned American civil rights activist, famously said, “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Nelson Mandela himself emphasized that “we know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”

As human rights advocates around the globe work to build a more equitable world out of the devastation of the pandemic, the urgency of these calls—not just for Palestinians but for all marginalized people—has never been clearer. Despite the prosperity and over-abundance in parts of the world, many are left behind—because of war, racism, poverty, corruption, and exploitation, among other human-made causes. In the rush to recover from a global pandemic, these same people will be left behind, again, until those primarily benefiting from these systems prioritize justice.

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