Future Tense

“We Are Always Behind Other People in the World”

What it’s like when your country doesn’t have enough COVID-19 vaccines.

A woman wearing a headscarf, a mask, and gloves puts a syringe in a vial.
An Iranian health worker prepares an injection of the locally made COVID-19 vaccine during the start of the second phase of trials in Tehran on March 15. Atta Kenare/Getty Images

In March, when I found a spot to volunteer for a day at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Phoenix, Arizona, I literally jumped for joy. It meant that at the end of the day, after nine hours of walking patients to waiting rooms after getting their shots, I could get a dose of Moderna too. This was before the vaccines were accessible to all people over 16 in Arizona, where I temporarily live, far away from my native Romania, where 19 percent of the population has now received at least one dose of a vaccine. I felt privileged. I am 30 years old, I am not a U.S. citizen, and I got this opportunity before many other people on the globe who needed a vaccine more than I did. And their turn still hasn’t arrived.

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The vaccine disparities around the world are huge. Forty-six percent of the U.S. population, 60 percent of Israel, and 53 percent of the U.K. have received at least one dose of a vaccine. By comparison, in Guatemala it’s 1.4 percent and in Kenya it’s 1.6 percent. And while some countries don’t have anywhere near enough doses, states like Ohio will give $1 million to five vaccinated residents, in an effort to cajole people who are hesitant to get a shot.

I wanted to know what it’s like for people living in countries with slow vaccine rollouts to watch places like the U.S. reopen. I talked by phone to people from Iran, Brazil, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Sweden about fairness, chance, and bad government management of the pandemic.

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Niloufar, a 29-year-old German teacher from Iran, thinks she might get her first shot in October. But she’s more worried about her parents, who are over 60 and have high blood pressure and diabetes. She wants to see them vaccinated as soon as possible. “Perhaps I won’t care if I get this vaccine or not, it’s not important to me anymore, just for my parents now. I am thinking about them,” she says. Iran has administered more than 1.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines so far, and 1.8 percent of the population has received at least one shot. At a rate of 64,147 doses administered daily, it will take around nine more months to reach 10 percent of the population, according to data provided by Reuters. COVID-19 infections are decreasing in the country, with about 16,000 new cases reported on average daily.

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“Because of sanctions, because of bad management [by our government], we are not at the equal level at vaccination with other people. I don’t like this feeling. We are always behind other people in the world,” Niloufar adds.

Laura Chirica, a Romanian scientist, lives in Sweden, where 8.7 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. She remembers receiving a call on her birthday in December from one of her best friends, who lives in San Diego. “And he says, ‘How are you? Happy birthday! I am going to get vaccinated.’ And I say, ‘Why, are you in a group at risk?’ And he says, ‘No, I don’t have anything.’ ” That same week, her son’s grandmother had died of COVID-19 in Sweden. “If she could have gotten the vaccine too, she would have lived. It was sad, and it simply shows the imbalance we have in the world,” Chirica tells me.

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As for the people in the U.S. and elsewhere who have access to the vaccine but are hesitant, Chirica says: “In the end, I understand them. No matter what you say, the vaccine was approved by way of an exception that doesn’t follow … the normal procedures. … This means that what we are doing now, it’s a clinical trial on the entire planet.” That empathy doesn’t mean she agrees with them. She says she will be vaccinated in the next couple of weeks, when the doses will be available for her age category. Then, she adds, “I [will] be able to go where I want, to meet my colleagues, to go to my father’s grave.”

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In Georgia, a country at the intersection of Europe and Asia with a population of 3.8 million people, the vaccination drive started with AstraZeneca. “But a very unfortunate thing happened,” says Tsira Gvasalia, a journalist from Georgia who specializes in medical issues. Just a few days after the vaccination started, a 27-year-old nurse died of anaphylactic shock after she received an AstraZeneca shot. As a result, “people got scared … and the vaccination rate really dropped,” she says. Georgia limited the AstraZeneca shot after the nurse’s death, saying that AstraZeneca vaccinations would continue only in full-fledged medical centers. In late March, the Pfizer vaccine arrived in Georgia, too, but many, including health care workers, remained reluctant. More recently, people have begun to regain trust. It also helps that the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm was introduced in Georgia on May 4. That’s the vaccine Gvasalia will receive next week. So far, just 1.8 percent of Georgia’s population has received at least one shot. Mass immunization is expected to start in July, according to the country’s health officials.

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Gvasalia thinks that since the U.S. invested so heavily in vaccine development, “it’s quite well deserved and I wouldn’t say it’s unfair” that so many Americans have already been vaccinated. At the same time, she added, “there is a saying that nobody is safe unless everybody is safe,” pointing to the risk of variants that could evade existing vaccines.

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Fernando Lira, a 27-year-old man from São Paulo, is at particular risk from COVID-19 because he has had a kidney transplant. He is angry at his government and at the disparities between countries. “I think it’s absurd that the U.S. gives free vaccines for tourists. I am Brazilian, I am living here, and I’m waiting for several months, when in the U.S. you receive the vaccine even if you don’t have American citizenship,” he says. “What is our president for? What are his concerns?”

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Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, who from the beginning called the coronavirus “a little flu,” launched a mass immunization in December, but at the time his statements didn’t really encourage Brazilians to get a shot. “In the Pfizer contract it’s very clear: We’re not responsible for any side effects. If you turn into a crocodile, it’s your problem,” he said. Now, 16 percent of the country’s 211 million people have received at least one shot. But the situation doesn’t look good. COVID-19 cases are increasing in Brazil, with approximately 60,000 new infections reported daily.

Jasmina Mameledzija from Bosnia and Herzegovina, a country in the Balkans with a population of 3.2 million people, told me that many Bosnian people travel to Serbia because of the lack of doses in their own country. Serbia has been inviting Bosnians to come to get extra doses that might otherwise expire. In a way, this is striking, because Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia have long-standing tensions that have often turned violent. Aleksandar Vučić, the Serbian president, has downplayed the genocide in Srebrenica of Bosnian people. Mameledzija says the fact that he opened the borders for neighbors, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, has served as good PR for him and Serbia. “My friends went there [to get vaccinated] and posted on social media, ‘Thank you, Serbia!’ … But if [Serbian officials] didn’t organize that, they had to throw away the vaccines,” she points out. Sharing this way “is nice,” she says, “but it’s not like taking from their own people and giving to someone else.”

After listening to all these people, I feel even more lucky for being in the U.S. for the moment and having had access to a Moderna vaccine.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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