Pope Francis speaks during his weekly Angelus prayer from the apostolic palace overlooking St. Peter's Square in the Vatican on Sept. 13. (Photo: AFP)
There is no shortage of candidates in the race to develop a vaccine against Covid-19. But hopes of arresting the raging infections have now hit a billion-dollar question: will the vaccine, when available, be affordable to the global poor?
Pope Francis, who has dedicated his papacy to pleading for the plight of the marginalized, remains the only global leader warning the world against using the vaccine for political and economic gains. The "common good" should be at the heart of the race for a vaccine, he insisted as recently as Sept. 9.
During his last weekly audience, the pontiff said the world is witnessing "partisan interests emerging" in the search for a vaccine, and some people "are taking advantage of the situation to instigate divisions."
"Others simply are not interested in the suffering of others; they pass by and go their own way. They are devotees of Pontius Pilate: they wash their hands," he told the general audience.
As the research for a vaccine remains a costly affair for governments, vaccine manufacturers and logistical partners, developed nations may take undue advantage of the process at the cost of poor people. The pope expressed a common concern sweeping Asian and African countries, where most of the world's poor live.
Already international donors are sulking about pumping in money to purchase the Covid-19 vaccine in African countries. Though they have committed US$2 billion for the benefit of African nations to buy the vaccine, only $700 million has been stumped up so far.
"There is a great deal of work to be done to diversify possible sources of funding," Matshidiso Moeti, Africa regional director of the World Health Organization, said on Sept. 10.
Though China and Russia have pledged to support African nations with their vaccines, the US and European countries have remained silent. Neither US President Donald Trump nor any European Union leader has come forward with any indication that a vaccine developed by their countries would be made affordable to poorer nations in Asia or Africa. Such an offer is neither mandatory nor necessary for any international conventions.
Pope Francis, who began his pontificate showing a preference for “frontiers of the world," has consistently stood up and spoken for the poor and marginalized. He urges nations and leaders to go beyond international conventions, diplomatic niceties and the lure of selfish profits to reach out to the world's needy. He has become the lone and sincere voice for the poor in the Church.
Profit drives the world, and no other product will see demand that a Covid-19 vaccine could have today. Experts estimate at least 70 percent of the world's eight billion people need to be vaccinated to gain global immunity.
However, half of the world's population — some four billion — are poor who subsist on an income of less than $2.50 a day, barely having enough to eat. Of that, an estimated one billion are below the poverty line, struggling to survive without enough food.
Asia, which houses some of the world's most populous and densely populated countries, has 783 million extremely poor, who live below the poverty line of $1.90 a day, according to a 2018 World Bank report. Unless the governments in their respective countries extend a helping hand, a successful coronavirus vaccine will be beyond the means of Asia's poor.
Of the poverty-hit market, India stands out with a population of 1.3 billion, equal to all 55 nations in Africa. The number of poor in India is crippling — some 70 percent, or more than 730 million, live on less than $2 a day.
What kind of money should they pay to get the vaccine when pharmaceutical companies are vying with each other to launch a vaccine? Some governments, including India’s, have entered into a pact with companies, hoping to secure the vaccine's exclusive distribution.
For example, Serum Institute, which has agreed to market the vaccine in India, estimated its price could be about $15 — a week's income for more than half of India’s families. Pharma major Pfizer, which has an agreement with the US government, said its product would be $20. How many of the Asian poor will have the vaccine?
Distributing the vaccine is also a costly affair due to logistical challenges. According to the International Air Transport Association, it will take the equivalent of 8,000 Boeing 747s to carry the necessary doses worldwide. The airliners are waiting to reap rich dividends from the "mission of the century."
"The pandemic has exposed the poor's plight and the great inequality that reigns in the world. While it does not distinguish between people, the virus has found, in its devastating path, great inequalities and discrimination. And it has exacerbated them!" the pontiff said on Aug. 19.
The pain of Pope Francis stems from his solid theological awareness. Volumes have been written in the past century, particularly after the Second Vatican Council, about the Catholic Church's need to become a church of the poor. The Church is where the poor live. Indeed, the Church is of the poor where it is alive and thriving today — in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The church of the poor will stand with Pope Francis to tell the rich that the world is not just a market but a place to share God's bounties.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.