The Future is Equal

Crisis deepening: Gordon Brown warns of unjustified “COVID-19 complacency” and $16 billion gap in vaccine and treatment regime

 “I’m not sure the world will ever forgive us” for worsening vaccine inequality and treatment of Africa “as bad as under colonial rule”, says former UK prime minister on Oxfam podcast

“People have become complacent about COVID-19. Our global (health) funds are fast running out of money. Vaccine inequity is getting worse,” said former UK prime minister Gordon Brown today.

Guesting on Oxfam’s EQUALS podcast, Brown said that “we must alert the conscience of the world” to act given the high possibility of more lethal variants “coming back to haunt even those who are fully vaccinated. We may feel safe, but we are not safe, as long as the disease can spread and mutate”.

Brown, who was appointed in 2021 as World Health Organization (WHO) Ambassador for Global Health Financing and is a member of the Club de Madrid forum of democratic former Presidents and Prime Ministers, spoke of rich countries approach to tackling COVID-19 so far as being an ethical, economic and epidemiological failure.

He warned that the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) ―the WHO’s initiative to coordinate the fastest health response out of the crisis― currently has a $16 billion funding hole. Brown spoke of only “weeks” left to resolve this.

“Unless the money comes in urgently, we will not be able to fund the next stages of vaccines, treatments, testing, and even the medical oxygen and PPE needed by nurses and doctors (around the world),” he said.

Brown wants governments to take “extraordinary measures” today as it did for the 2008 global financial crash. He urged them to share the burden of funding according to their ability to pay, as they do now in funding UN peacekeeping or the World Bank or the IMF, rather than “unfair” and failing voluntary contributions. He said how the world had eradicated smallpox was a successful example.

Brown said it was “short-sighted to take such a narrow view of national self-interest” for rich countries to vaccinate only their own citizens in prolonging a mutating crisis that could cost them $5 trillion in loss of trade, economic activities, companies going bust, and jobs lost. “This will bite back even those countries that have a big vaccination program,” he said, criticizing the fact that vaccination rates in rich countries currently stand at 75 percent against 11 percent across Africa.

“We need a vaccine patent waiver and technology transfer. What’s happened in Africa is as bad as what happened under colonial rule. Africa has been deprived of vaccines but also of the ability to manufacture its own vaccines because it does not have the patents to do so.” Brown slammed the EU as “unconscionable” for taking vaccines made in South Africa late last year, at a time that Europe was 60 percent vaccinated while Africa stood at less than 3 percent. He said that the “World Trade Organization should have agreed a long time ago” the patent waiver.

Brown said that the most urgent and immediate priority in tackling COVID-19 and getting more vaccines to people especially in developing countries was money. “People are dying now ―right now― because we can’t get enough vaccines and equipment and therapeutics to them quickly enough. We have to solve the problem now, and that requires proper funding now.”

“Even now more than 70 percent of vaccines are still coming to the G20 countries which means that the other 175 countries are simply losing out. We’re in this terrible position where 60 million vaccines have already had to be destroyed in the US, Canada, the UK and the European Union,” he said. 250 million more may have to be destroyed by Easter as being past their used-by date.

Brown said that the COVID-19 response was lacking funding, coordination and leadership. “An enlightened view of self-interest” would tell rich country leaders that all people must have the chance to be vaccinated to eradicate a disease that is likely to mutate and come back to hit you, he said.

Brown also called on social grassroots movements to come together around this “big picture” of saving lives. “We have to expose the anti-vaxx lies. We have to realise that social media matters. Most of all we have to give people a bridgehead of hope and a sense of that we can change things,” he said.

“If you can work for change and hope that the world can be a better place, you can persuade people to join you. I would stress organization and education and agitation, but I would stress the importance of persuading people that the world can be a better place through engendering hope in a better future.”


The EQUALS podcast about inequality is hosted by Oxfam. Listen to the latest episode with former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown.