COVID-19 vaccination requires global thinking: Brock expert

As COVID-19 vaccinations roll out across the province, many people are looking forward to an end to the pandemic. But instead of focusing solely on local vaccination efforts, a Brock professor is encouraging people to adopt a global perspective.

“The vaccine isn’t foolproof, but in public discourse you hear people perceiving it as a fix for the pandemic,” says Christine Daigle, a Philosophy Professor with the Interdisciplinary Humanities PhD program and Director of Brock’s Posthumanism Research Institute.

“The vaccine doesn’t take us back to pre-pandemic, but it will potentially encourage pre-pandemic behaviour.”

While the science around COVID-19 and vaccinations has been changing rapidly, it is still unknown if vaccination prevents transmission of the virus SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Measures such as mask wearing and social distancing are visible signals to other people that we care about them, says Daigle.

“Wearing a mask indicates to others that I understand I may be a carrier and do not want to infect them,” she says. “It shows care.”

Infectious disease experts are recommending that people continue to wear masks and to practice social distancing and hand hygiene even after vaccination to reduce risk of transmission to those still awaiting a vaccination or who are unable to be vaccinated.

Requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination, such as the vaccine passports instituted by Iceland in January and now proposed by the European Union, is also troubling to Daigle.

“Requiring a vaccine passport might be discriminatory to people who are unable to take the vaccine or who have little or no access to vaccination,” she says.

The idea of vaccine passports rests on assumptions about the availability of vaccines. Such an approach will exclude a lot of people because they don’t live in the right place with access to vaccinations or because their government mishandled things, she says.

Vaccination access is being heavily impacted by a market-based approach to distribution. The World Health Organization (WHO) has already criticized this approach, warning that it will prolong the pandemic and human and economic suffering.

A “me-first” approach by wealthy nations allows the virus to continue to circulate and mutate, undercutting vaccination efforts.

“If you don’t distribute the vaccine globally and if you let richer countries hoard vaccines, you’re preventing other countries from accessing them,” says Daigle. “This allows the virus to circulate and mutate, which ultimately defeats vaccination efforts.”

Political leaders and politicians may be caught between doing what is politically useful by focusing on vaccinating their own populations and working collaboratively on a global scale to ensure affordable, accessible vaccinations for all. For a global approach to work it will take buy-in from all countries, not just a few, Daigle says.

“It may be an unpopular political decision to take a global approach,” she says, “but a global approach would ensure fair and widespread access. Market rules should not determine vaccine distribution, global public health concerns should.”

The pandemic also shows that humans need to rethink their relationship to non-human animals, both in the wild and farmed settings, says Daigle. Her research includes human and non-human animal relationships and the emergence of zoonotic diseases.

“We continue to encroach on wildlife and our contact with wildlife increases, so there are more chances of diseases jumping species,” she says.

Although the animal source for the SARS-CoV-2 virus has yet to be determined, Daigle cautions against the use of racist tropes in how we talk about zoonotic diseases and the value judgements we make about what non-Western cultures eat.

“We have this idea that diseases don’t emerge here, that they’re exotic,” says Daigle. “But we live in a global world and being on another continent doesn’t protect you. We need to think of ourselves as interconnected.”

Disease outbreaks can also emerge from Western factory farm settings, where the front-line agricultural workers are often racialized and financially disadvantaged but carry the brunt of the risk. Daigle points to the recent outbreak of avian flu at a Russian poultry farm, where workers were infected with the H5N8 virus from birds. SARS-Cov-2 has also been found circulating in European fur farms and making the leap from animals back to humans.

“In some ways we are losing our innocence. We thought we were invulnerable, but we have always been vulnerable,” says Daigle. “The pandemic is showing us we need to make profound changes in the ways humans live.”

Daigle is currently a Research Director (Core Fellow) at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies, where she is working on SSHRC-funded research on vulnerability and ethics. She is also a member of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Chair on Community Sustainability research team at Brock, where she investigates the ways humans are entangled with the environment and how to frame notions of sustainability.

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