Global vaccine inequality exemplified in Gaza

A Palestinian who works in Israel receives a Covid-19 vaccine at an Israeli military checkpoint south of the West Bank city of Al-Khalil-Hebron (Oren Ziv - ActiveStills)

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  April 15, 2021

The head of the World Health Organization recently decried what he described as “a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines.”

“On average in high-income countries, almost one in four people has received a vaccine. In low-income countries, it’s one in more than 500,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added during a press conference last week.

“Let me repeat that: one in four versus one in 500,” he emphasized.

That inequality is sharply illustrated by the disparity in inoculations among the population in Israel versus that of Gaza, where new cases of COVID-19 are skyrocketing.

Israel is the global leader in doses administered per capita, with more than half of its population of 9.3 million fully vaccinated.

By contrast, around one percent of Gaza’s population had been vaccinated as of 4 April.

With 1.2 million Palestinians over the age of 18 in Gaza, some 2.4 million vaccine doses are needed. Gaza has only received 83,300 doses so far.

Israel’s obligations

Israel, which has imposed a comprehensive air, land and sea blockade on Gaza since 2007, is obliged by international law and agreements it has signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization to provide vaccines to Palestinians living under military occupation.

But it has refused to uphold that responsibility, providing vaccines only to Palestinians working in its settlements and as laborers inside Israel.

In other words, Israel has only administered inoculations to Palestinians from the West Bank who come into close proximity with Israelis.

It has provided no doses of the vaccine to Palestinians in Gaza.

Human rights groups have warned that the pandemic would stretch Gaza’s medical system, hindered by years of siege and repeated Israeli military assaults, beyond capacity.

The first cases of community transmission of COVID-19 in Gaza were confirmed during August.

More than 700 people have since died from the disease in the Strip, which is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.

Severe and critical cases of COVID-19 have spiked in recent weeks as a highly transmissible variant first detected in Britain has taken hold in Gaza.

On Wednesday, the health ministry in the territory reported a 30 percent positivity rate.

The New York Times reported this week that Gaza hospitals “would probably have to postpone some surgical procedures to free up intensive care beds” to cope with severe and critical COVID-19 cases.

Authorities in Gaza have imposed a nightly curfew and other measures to curb community transmission.

Ramadan, traditionally a time of communal gatherings and prayers, began this week. Even before the pandemic, the spirit of the festive month had \ been diminished by the economic hardships compounded by Israel’s siege and consecutive military assaults.

Gisha, an Israeli human rights group opposed to the siege on Gaza, said earlier this month that “the actual number of active cases [of COVID-19] could be even higher than the testing indicates.”

Due to the high unemployment rate in the territory, “some residents forgo getting tested because they cannot afford to lose workdays and jeopardize the income needed to support their families.”

Israeli court kicks can down the road

In late March, Gisha and five other human rights groups petitioned Israel’s high court to demand that the state take immediate action to ensure the supply of vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

This week, the court granted an extension to the state, not requiring a response until 3 May, despite the urgent need to stymie the spread of COVID-19.

The organizations have emphasized Israel’s “legal, moral and ethical obligations toward Palestinians given its ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.”

The petition also notes that Israel’s health ministry says that at least 90 percent of the population must be vaccinated to halt the spread of COVID-19.

Not only is Israel’s vaccination policy towards the Palestinians morally indefensible, it may also prove self-defeating.

While its status as occupier comes with certain obligations, Israel is hardly the only country responsible for global vaccine inequality.

Last month, data showed that high-income countries representing only a fifth of the world’s adult population owned more than half of all the vaccine doses purchased globally.

These countries “currently have enough vaccine doses to cover more than twice their adult populations,” according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Canada has purchased enough to vaccinate its population five times over,” according to the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, which adds that “not all of these vaccines will necessarily receive approval and move to market.”

The World Health Organization head has said that “vaccine nationalism” will only prolong the pandemic.

“It is estimated that there will not be enough vaccine doses to cover the world’s population until at least 2023,” according to Kaiser, citing a study by the Washington-based Center for Global Development.

Maureen Clare Murphy is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago