Opinion: America’s Covid vaccine hesitation is an insult to countries in need


Last week in rural Oregon, a woman of advanced age breathlessly explained to me how she was never taking the vaccine because Covid-19 “is just the flu.” A 26-year-old waitress told me she was hesitant because the vaccines are too new, and since she and her fiancé are fit and eat a balanced diet, she didn’t think they needed it. A local health official said one person in his county declined the vaccine because they said it would turn them into a Democrat.

I fought back the urge to react in their presence as I stood next to my reporter, nodding and trying my best to empathize. All I wanted to say was: “Do you know what people would give to be in your position?” I thought of my best friend, whose husband has chronic asthma. I thought of my cousins, who can’t visit my grandfather in the hospital. I thought of my two young sisters, who’ve been out of school for over a year. In Brazil, where I am from and where my entire family lives, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone turning down a vaccine against Covid.

I am proud and thankful to be an immigrant in a country so privileged that it has secured one billion vaccine doses and to have access to some of the best hospitals in the world where there are ventilators, oxygen tanks, and all the necessary medical equipment to treat the sick.

But it is not like that in the rest of the world.

America’s abundance, this wealth of resources that financed the massive efforts against Covid — which our leaders were proud to announce — is the very same reason many are hesitant to get vaccinated. Some Americans are blinded by this wealth and privilege. For all the lives that the pandemic took and all the lives it changed forever, many still choose to ignore science in favor of their own unscientific rationalizations. About a quarter of adult Americans say they will not take the vaccine, a CNN poll shows.
Meanwhile, Brazil is struggling not only to import vaccines but with a massive Covid wave that has filled cemeteries and ICUs and caused oxygen shortages. Thousands of people in my hometown in southern Brazil have had their second doses of the vaccine delayed because there aren’t enough doses.
In California, where I live, the governor has promised to fully reopen the state by the summer. In Porto Alegre, the fear of Covid, especially the more aggressive variants, still fills the air. Everyone knows someone who’s had the virus or currently has it. Intensive care units still hover at around 90% capacity.
It’s impossible not to be personally affected when someone says they just don’t think they need the vaccine, or don’t trust it, when some of my family members are months away from even getting an appointment. As the US is quickly moving toward a “tipping point in vaccine enthusiasm,” Brazil is in desperate need of doses.

My family has been very lucky so far. We haven’t lost anyone to Covid, most of us have been able to work or collect unemployment. We haven’t been through a fraction of what so many other families have endured. But while some of my family members over 60 years old have been fully vaccinated, it will be a long time before anyone in my generation even gets an appointment for a first shot.

Since my grandfather was admitted into a hospital a few weeks ago with an aggressive tumor, I’ve been the only grandchild able to visit him. My cousin Isabel, 35, has a newborn at home and is scared to set foot in a hospital brimming with Covid patients. It’s possible that our grandfather will never meet her baby girl. It’s possible none of my cousins get to see him again.

It's time to break out of our rooms -- and travel
The vast majority of vaccine doses has gone to high-income or upper-middle-income countries, with low-income countries receiving just 0.2%, the World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last month. He called it a “shocking imbalance” in the global distribution of vaccines.
The US and Brazil are a fitting case study of these numbers. As of Thursday, more than 105.5 million people in the US — 32.1% of the total population — have been fully vaccinated. Brazil has fully vaccinated around 15 million people, 7% of its population.
But while cases in the US have been on a steady decline for weeks, more cases of Covid-19 have been reported globally in the past two weeks than during the first six months of the pandemic, with Brazil and India accounting for more than half of those cases, according to the World Health Organization.
Brazil surpassed 400,000 deaths last week. Following the gruesome milestone, the country’s health minister pleaded for more vaccines from countries that have them. Earlier in April, the Brazilian ambassador to the European Union Marcos Galvão said the country has the capacity to vaccinate 2.4 million people a day. “If there were enough Covid-19 vaccines available, we could vaccinate our population much faster.” Brazil already has a robust infrastructure for vaccines in place for other diseases. Vaccinations are so ingrained in Brazilian culture that we even have a mascot for it. The biggest impediment is the availability of doses — and the willingness of the government to set the plans into motion.
Brazil’s failure to manage the pandemic wasn’t helped by the fact that its president, Jair Bolsonaro, was a staunch Covid denier who called the virus “just a little flu.” Bolsonaro then did a full 180 in March, when the country saw 3,251 Covid deaths in one day, announcing 2021 “is the year of the vaccine.” This week, the Brazilian senate heard the first testimony in an inquiry on the federal government’s handling of the pandemic — in which the former health minister said he systematically warned Bolsonaro of the consequences of ignoring the science on Covid-19. On Thursday night, Bolsonaro said he couldn’t watch much of the inquiry because it was boring and called the senators “know-it-alls” for accusing him of not doing enough to prevent the hundreds of thousands of deaths from coronavirus.
Brazil has relied mostly on the CoronaVac vaccine, produced there with active ingredients from the Chinese lab SinoVac. Since January it has delivered 42 million doses across the country. AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines have also been distributed to the country through Covax Facility, an international initiative for equitable vaccine access, and Brazil is supposed to receive 10 million doses through it. But that’s not enough to get Brazil to reach herd immunity –around 70-85% of the population immunized.
As the US pledged to share 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine with other countries, this week’s announcement by the Biden administration in support of a vaccine patent waiver proposal sheds some light to the countries that desperately need more vaccine doses. I ask that we each take that into our own hands and try as hard as we can to convince those around us who are hesitant to take the vaccine. The faster we can convince them to get their shot, the faster my family and those in Brazil and other countries can have access to their doses.



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