I remember as a young child, I enjoyed queuing in the street with my mother to register for my birth certificate and to receive vaccines at the same time. It was in the early 80s and vaccines were so precious commodities. We lived in Phnom Penh, and I was lucky to receive them because my mother was a junior civil servant back then. Forty years later, despite much progress, vaccines are still much needed to save Cambodian lives.
Covid-19 has impacted us all in one way or another. The fundamental lesson that we are learning of this pandemic is that our health depends on the health of others around us. While we all can do our part in preventing the spread, only a vaccine will ensure that everyone can be safe from the virus, especially in countries like Cambodia where the healthcare system still needs to be improved and out of pocket health expenditure often leads to debt.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, almost 30 per cent of Cambodians were reported to borrow money to access healthcare, with many – particularly those living in rural areas – having to bear the additional costs of transport to and from healthcare facilities. Since the outbreak, despite all Covid-19 treatment being free of charge, numerous families have taken out loans to cover daily subsistence costs and livelihood losses, and the majority of these families have found themselves deeper in debt.
The eventuality of paying for a vaccine against Covid-19 would add to the financial burdens of the poor and vulnerable who have already shown that they cannot afford healthcare in ordinary times, let alone a vaccine in these extraordinary circumstances. Ensuring that everyone has access to a vaccine, when developed, is the only way to protect us from another pandemic, as well as safeguarding people against additional financial hardships associated with paying for health services. Millions of vulnerable Cambodians who have escaped extreme poverty are now at risk of falling back into poverty.
Although the virus does not discriminate against rich or poor, when it comes to treatment and access to a future vaccine, we know that the most vulnerable people – in particular women, girls, and the poorest – will most likely be pushed to the end of the line. It is therefore critical that, if and when a vaccine is developed, no one is left behind. If we are to fight against this virus and end this pandemic, all individuals should have access to free vaccines.
We know from previous experiences that when it comes to new medicines and vaccines, large pharmaceutical companies, driven by profit-making and private interests, can restrict access to affordable research, development and production of medicines and vaccines, especially for low- and middle-income countries. There is therefore a huge risk that when a vaccine is developed, it will only be made available to the lucky few, tailor made for profit, and not for the people who need it most. Providing a vaccine to 3.7 billion people could cost less than what the 10 biggest pharmaceutical companies make in four months. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has estimated the cost of procuring and delivering the vaccine for poor countries at $25 billion, which represents the profits earned by the top 10 pharmaceutical corporations in less than four months.
For countries like Cambodia, this could mean the difference between life and death for many individuals. Big pharmaceutical companies hold the monopoly of essential medicines, due to patent rules and rights, which prevent developing countries, like ours, to access affordable vaccines and medicines.
Covid-19 has shown that through solidarity and cooperation, we have a chance at winning the fight against the virus. To this end, we are calling for the mandatory sharing of all Covid-19 related knowledge, data, and intellectual property, and a commitment from the pharmaceutical industry to make vaccines patent-free and accessible to all.
We, furthermore, call on our governments and world leaders to guarantee that the vaccine can be availed to everyone, especially the poorest in developing countries, and at no cost. Our health is a public good and not a profit- driven market. Our needs and future threats should be a priority rather than market prices and profit.
To kick-start these calls to action, Oxfam, in collaboration with the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia, Health Action Coordinating Committee, Medecins Sans Frontieres, The NGO Forum, is organising a month-long social media campaign from May 21 to June 20, this year, to rally one million supporters to amplify the following message to world leaders: When a Covid-19 vaccine is found, it must be free and fairly distributed to everyone on the planet. Please follow our Facebook page (Oxfam in Cambodia) and join us in sharing this message to prevent more lives from being lost to this virus.
Solinn Lim is Oxfam country director