Skip navigation

“Vaccine apartheid” threatens the equity of climate negotiations

Just 0.2% of Covid-19 vaccine supplies have gone to low-income countries. This leaves developing countries continuing to deal with the pandemic, while wealthier countries begin returning to normal.

With the UN’s preparatory climate negotiations for COP26 beginning this week, we outline how this “vaccine apartheid” threatens the equity of climate negotiations – and what steps can be taken to address these inequitable impacts.

Anisha Nazareth, Zoha Shawoo, Frida Lager / Published on 31 May 2021
Worker sits on chair in empty vaccination centre

A vaccination centre in New York. According to WHO, 87% of vaccines have gone to the world’s wealthiest countries. Photo: New York National Guard / Flickr.

Covid-19 has shed light on the stark inequalities within our societies, with those most impacted by the crisis often being the poorest and most marginalized. The pandemic is now exacerbating inequalities between countries. New cases in more developed nations, such as the United States, are hitting long-term lows, while cases soar in countries such as India.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 87% of vaccines have gone to the world’s wealthiest countries. By contrast, low-income countries have received just 0.2% of supplies. Less than 1% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population has been vaccinated.

This stark disparity – increasingly called “vaccine apartheid” – threatens the extent to which November’s UN climate negotiations in Glasgow, or COP26, can be truly inclusive and representative of developing countries’ concerns. The same countries with the lowest vaccination rates are generally also among those most in need of support to deal with climate impacts.

This week, as a UN preparatory climate meeting for the COP begins, we outline three key issues that illustrate how this disparity in vaccination rates between wealthier and poorer countries undermines the equity of climate negotiations. The situation suggests that the nature of global climate governance requires a rethink.

Vaccine apartheid limits the ability of developing countries to participate in climate negotiations

The UK has been adamant about holding an in-person COP in Glasgow this year – despite the ongoing pandemic. Alok Sharma, president of the COP, has indicated that the conference will have “special measures” to limit the spread of the virus. High-level country delegates from developing countries may be able to fulfil stringent requirements, and the United Kingdom has also indicated that it is prepared to vaccinate country delegates if required. But let’s be frank. Representatives from civil society and marginalized communities  – for whom existing visa and travel requirements are already a burden – are unlikely to be vaccinated in time. Making equitable climate decisions requires their representation.

Technology may be one answer. SEI’s online climate negotiations project has found that technical issues such as time zones and poor internet access can be barriers to equitable online negotiations, and risk disproportionally affecting poorer regions by whom the urgency of tackling climate change is most felt; however, these technical difficulties are sometimes used as a scapegoat for delaying action – and often not by those who face the most severe technological hurdles.

The pandemic has given people across the world much more experience and confidence in online discussions. Preliminary findings show that the online format could allow for a more equitable, inclusive and transparent discussion. But it could also have the opposite effect, leaving marginalized communities and the most vulnerable out. A deliberate organization of the negotiations to tackle existing inequalities, allowing for meaningful participation of civil society, as well as providing necessary infrastructural solutions will be needed for the online format to be inclusive. As one stakeholder in the project emphasized: “Innovation is a necessity now. And we should not be shy to try new things.”

The gulf in vaccination rates between poor and wealthy countries reduces the bargaining power of developing countries on climate issues

Major corporations such as Pfizer and AstraZeneca are prioritizing profits to shareholders over wider, equitable access. Major developed countries such as the UK and Switzerland have rejected moves to waive intellectual property rights to enable developing countries to produce their own vaccines. Even the Biden administration’s waiver of patents is unlikely to boost supply in the developing world.

Many developing countries simply cannot afford the vaccines. Moreover, they lack the healthcare infrastructure needed. The Pfizer vaccine, for example, requires constant refrigeration, an issue in places where electricity is lacking or unreliable. Vaccination programmes require people to deliver the shots, an issue in countries with fewer healthcare workers per capita.

This leaves developing countries negotiating on two fronts: for their vaccine needs, and for their climate agenda demands. One likely affects the other. To avoid jeopardizing vaccine access, developing countries may capitulate when it comes to insisting on more climate finance.

The global vaccination gap reduces the capacity of developing countries to address climate mitigation and adaptation needs

The proliferation of  net-zero targets for 2050 raises the question of whether planning for the long term in the time of a pandemic is in itself a privilege. Many developing countries are still in a state of an immediate health emergency that overshadows climate concerns. The timing is worrying. Developing countries are less likely to be prepared, and less likely to be ready to submit more ambitious, second-round Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) to the Paris Agreement in the run-up to COP26 in Glasgow.

Moreover, the global economic downturn caused by the pandemic has jeopardized access to climate funds that these countries need. For example, many African nations have reported that money targeted towards climate adaptation has been diverted to deal with the economic fall-out from the pandemic. Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank has said that just 3% of international climate finance is reaching Africa.

How should global climate negotiations go forward?

This is a moment to rethink how global climate negotiations could more effectively address a yawning divide.

More resources should be channelled into setting up the digital infrastructure required for marginalized communities to participate online, and into setting up online climate negotiation spaces that work.

The organizers of COP26 should acknowledge that the Covid-19 crisis is hampering the ability of poorer nations to negotiate. They should enhance the bargaining power of these countries – for example, by organizing more pre-COP online sessions for developing countries to come together and set agendas. The COP presidency should also offer poorer nations additional financial and technological support to boost their capacity to develop agendas to ramp up and deliver their NDCs before COP26.

This is in the interest of all. The pandemic offers sobering lessons for handling global crises. A longer pandemic imposes global economic costs. It increases the chances that new vaccine-resistant variants will arise. The climate crisis is the next looming global crisis. COP26 could be the forum for a new start.

Written by

Anisha Nazareth
Anisha Nazareth

Associate Scientist


Zoha Shawoo
Zoha Shawoo



Frida Lager
Frida Lager

Research Associate

SEI Headquarters

Design and development by Soapbox.