COVID Vaccine access should be on the COP26 Agenda

By Mantoe Phakati
This article is part of a series focusing on the upcoming COP26 global climate summit in the UK

The 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) resumes this year after it was postponed in 2020 following the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the United Nations and the host government, United Kingdom, reached a compromise to allow virtual negotiations to take place between 31 May to 17 June ahead of COP26, nations will have to attend the COP in person in Glasgow, Scotland.

COP26 takes place during a pandemic while developing countries like Eswatini, which is also sending a delegation to the conference, can hardly access vaccines. This presents an interesting dynamic because climate change will result in more diseases outbreaks. Pandemics will soon happen more frequently owing to climate change and no one is safe because we are all part of a larger ecosystem that is interconnected.

The issue of vaccines during COP26 is more relevant because it is likely to determine the participation of countries at the conference. Without access to vaccines, traveling citizens are at a higher risk of developing severe sickness should they contract the virus. Although the UK Government has stated that the expected 30 000 delegates do not need to use Scotland’s COVID-19 vaccine passports, it is still important to shine the spotlight on the issue to ensure that developing countries get access. Considering that the pandemic is far from over, particularly for many developing countries; clearly effective sustainable solutions are necessary to fight the pandemic. The same can be said about the climate crisis.

According to the WHO, only two percent of the African continent has been vaccinated. The situation is not unique to African countries. All developing nations face a similar challenge when it comes to accessing the COVID vaccines while some of their developed counterparts have vaccinated even children – an age group that is not likely to develop severe disease from COVID-19 – instead of sending the surplus to those who need them the most. Clearly, rich countries are hoarding vaccines while their poor counterparts are at risk of losing more people and failing to resuscitate their economies.

The issue of vaccines is relevant to climate change which is what COP26 is all about. It demonstrates the inequalities between developed and developing countries. Developed countries cope better with emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic or the devastating impacts of climate change – floods, droughts, cyclones, hailstorms, etc, because they have resources. The same cannot be said about their developing counterparts.   While developing countries like Eswatini contribute the least to climate change, the Paris agreement calls for global climate action and therefore enables low emitting countries like Eswatini to participate in climate action. However, many developing countries lack the capacity particularly financial resources to implement climate mitigation and adaptation projects. This has resulted in richer and more developed countries to  pledged $100 billion per year but they have not delivered on their promise. It is the same with the vaccines. All countries have agreed that to end the pandemic they must work as a global community. Hoarding vaccines while other countries are in desperate need is the same as watching them lose lives and sources of livelihoods to climate impacts which perpetuates inequalities. One hopes that COP26 will not only raise the bar in accelerating progress to raising ambition, but it will also raise the voice for developing countries to access vaccines so that we can all begin to rebuild and rethink our economies.