The first recorded polio epidemic was in Sweden in the 1880s, though inscriptions in Egypt suggest the disease dates back to ancient times. In 1916 the virus devastated New York and swathes of the north-eastern United States, killing six thousand people, mostly children, and leaving thousands more paralysed. Unlike other deadly epidemic diseases, such as tuberculosis, polio appeared to have no correlation to poverty. ‘Once the terror stalks, mere wealth cannot buy immunity,’ as the Ladies Home Journal put it in 1935. ‘The well-fed babies of the boulevards are no safer than gamins from the gutter from the mysterious universality of the crippling midget, once it’s on the rampage.’
Western experts thought polio was a disease of modernity, a sign of advancement. But it soon became apparent that poor countries in the Global South were affected too. What epidemiologists termed ‘modern polio’ had been brought on by sanitary advances in Europe and the United States which meant people were less likely to contract the disease as infants and so (if they survived) to gain immunity, which led to intermittent large outbreaks among a more susceptible older population. Countries from India to Egypt, meanwhile, still faced endemic ‘old polio’, leaving uncounted numbers of children dead or paralysed.
When two vaccines arrived against polio in the 1950s, countries including Australia and the US declared the war against the virus over. It took longer in the rest of the world: the WHO announced that polio had finally been eradicated in India in 2014. Pakistan and Afghanistan were the only countries where the disease was still endemic in 2019.
Like polio, Covid-19 has ravaged all types of bodies in all types of places, all across the world. The poor have been more likely to be worse affected, but the privileged have not been able to buy themselves out of it altogether. The disease has infected prime ministers and presidents, celebrities and Olympians. Ten days ago, a ninety-year-old woman in the UK was the first person in the world to be vaccinated against it. The development of the vaccines in less than a year is an incredible feat. But along with the announcement that the UK was beginning its vaccination programme – with other wealthy countries soon to follow suit – came the news that rich countries are hoarding vaccine doses.
According to the People’s Vaccine Alliance, wealthy countries with 14 per cent of the world’s population have secured 53 per cent of the most promising vaccines. Canada is the worst offender: it has bought enough jabs to vaccinate every Canadian five times. The Alliance estimates that 90 per cent of people in seventy low-income countries are unlikely to be vaccinated against the virus next year.
‘No one should be blocked from getting a life-saving vaccine because of the country they live in or the amount of money in their pocket,’ Anna Marriott, Oxfam’s health policy manager, said. ‘But unless something changes dramatically, billions of people around the world will not receive a safe and effective vaccine for Covid-19 for years to come.’
There is a risk that Covid-19 will become yet another disease, like malaria or tuberculosis, that overwhelmingly affects those who live in low-income countries. To prevent that happening, one place to start would be India and South Africa’s proposal to the World Trade Organisation Council that intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines, tests and treatments be suspended until everyone, everywhere is protected.