Covid's Omicron variant is price of developed world's betrayal of poorest nations' human rights – Susan Dalgety

December is a month of days. World Aids Day is marked on 1 December every year, the International Day of Persons with Disability was yesterday, and on Friday December 10, the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence will end.

A protest march in Pretoria, South Africa, calling for more Covid vaccines to be made available (Picture: Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images)
A protest march in Pretoria, South Africa, calling for more Covid vaccines to be made available (Picture: Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images)

And on the same day, the mother of them all, Human Rights Day, will be observed across the world.

On 10 December 1948, in the wake of the inhuman atrocities of the Second World War, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Drafted in an atmosphere of cautious optimism and with the best of intentions, the document sets out the inalienable rights that each of us is entitled to – regardless of our “race, colour, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”.

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There is no hierarchy in the document, no individual or group of people are entitled to more rights than any other. A teenage girl growing up in a remote village in Mozambique has the same entitlement to property, work and education as a boy educated at Eton with ambitions to be Prime Minister.

There are 30 Articles in the UDHR, the most translated document in the world, ranging from the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community (Article 27) to the aforementioned right to work, with equal pay for equal work (Article 23).

Every aspect of human life is covered, from marriage to trade unions, public service to slavery, and each article is rooted in the first one: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

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Health workers wait to administer a Covid vaccine at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto (Picture: Emmanuel Croset/AFP via Getty Images)

A feminist aside. Former US First Lady and force of nature, Eleanor Roosevelt, is credited with ensuring that Article 1 read “all human beings” instead of the original draft which stated that “all men are born free and equal”. Now all we need is for the UN to replace “brotherhood” with “solidarity” or some other non-sexist term, but I digress.

Two years after the UN signed off its charter, the European Convention on Human Rights was drafted. This treaty has been signed by 47 member states of the Council of Europe, including the UK. And in 1998, the Westminster Parliament passed the Human Rights Act, which remains in force today despite grumblings from the usual suspects – mostly backbench Tory MPs. But for how long?

Not for the first time, Boris Johnson warned in Parliament this week that he was going to review “the human rights system”, though for the moment, we citizens have certain inalienable rights. But what does this mean in real life? Are human right conventions and treaties nothing more than window dressing?

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Let’s take the urgent subject of vaccines. The theme for this year’s Human Rights Day is “all human, all equal” with a campaign wish-list ranging from breaking the cycle of poverty to equal opportunities for young people. So far, so predictable.

No government on earth could argue with any of these aims, but they are so broad that no government, not matter how rich, will feel the least pressure to pay any attention to them. Except perhaps for the fourth one on the list: reversing vaccine inequality and injustice.

Here the UN pulls no punches. “Vaccine injustice through unfair vaccine distribution and hoarding contravenes international legal and human rights norms and the spirit of global solidarity,” it states.

It might also have said that vaccine injustice risks the health of us all, not just those denied access to jabs. It should come as no surprise that the Omicron variant has taken hold in South Africa, where only 27 per cent the population has been vaccinated against Covid.

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The situation across the rest of sub-Saharan Africa is even more depressing. According to the International Monetary Fund, as of two weeks ago, only about four per cent of the population of this region had been fully vaccinated (two doses). In Britain, 80 per cent of people aged over 12 years have received two shots and a third of us have had a booster.

The awful truth is that rich countries have broken their solemn promise to vaccinate the world. Even when vaccines are sent to low-income countries, the deliveries have been ad hoc, with very short notice, making it almost impossible for countries like Malawi or Zimbabwe to plan effective vaccination campaigns. Yet, when properly supported, countries like Malawi – even with its rudimentary health service – can make spectacular progress in public health.

Malawi has one of the highest rates of HIV in the world – nearly ten per cent of the population is infected – yet it is close to achieving the UNAIDS target of having 90 per cent of the population tested and 90 per cent of those who need them getting antiviral drugs.

Give Malawi, or Zimbabwe, or Eswatini, or any low-income country, a regular supply of vaccines with a decent shelf-life, and they will get needles into arms.

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Politicians have oft-repeated the mantra “none of us are safe until all of us are safe” over the last 18 months. The emergence of Omicron proves the point.

But rich countries, like ours, the EU and USA have selfishly refused to take meaningful action. This month, according to former PM Gordon Brown, now World Health Organisation ambassador for global health financing, there will be 600 million unused vaccines available across the G7 countries, enough for almost every adult in sub-Saharan Africa.

Universal human rights may be utopian. They are an easy target for right-wing politicians. But we are all born free and equal in dignity and rights, endowed with reason and conscience. And reason dictates that until everyone in Africa is vaccinated, then all of us are at risk.

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