The World in Need
May 27, 2021
by Amy Givler, MD
When John Donne wrote “No Man Is an Island,” he was lying on his sickbed, thinking, perhaps, it would be his deathbed. When he heard the church bells tolling for a person recently deceased, it got him thinking. His life—everyone’s life—was diminished by the death of that unknown person. We are all connected.
Human life is precious. Every death due to COVID-19 is a loss to us all. I ache when I read of the recent surge of COVID deaths in India. What is happening there is a tragedy. Though they are scrambling to vaccinate their population, administering as many as four million doses a day, it is not making much of a dent because of their nearly 1.4 billion population. And besides, you can’t vaccinate yourself out of a surge. The vaccines need to be given beforehand.
And that leads to the crux of the matter: Vaccines. How can these be distributed quickly enough to avert ongoing tragedies?
The U.S. is administering just under two million doses of COVID-19 vaccines every day, and now half our population has received at least one dose, and 40 percent are fully vaccinated. Happily, 85 percent of those 65 and older have had at least one dose, and 74 percent are fully vaccinated. Some states are doing a much better job of vaccinating than others. But the bad news is that the rate of vaccination is slowing.
Some of that is due to access. That is, the people who were highly motivated to get the vaccine got it early on. They were willing to endure long waits holding on the phone trying to get a vaccine appointment. Most of my patients (I’m a family physician at a Louisiana indigent-care hospital) were not in the category of “highly motivated.” However, now it is easy to get an appointment, and, in many places, people can walk in to get the vaccine, no appointment necessary.
Most people seem to need only a gentle push. Of the 11 outpatients I saw Friday, two were vaccinated, one was adamantly opposed to getting it and the other eight just needed a discussion on the value of this vaccination before they said they would get it. I gave each of them the phone number of our hospital’s vaccine clinic, with its hours of operation, on a paper prescription. (Yes, I still have a prescription pad for just such important take-home messages as this one.)
Alas, public health officials are no longer talking about the possibility of herd immunity, which is when some elusive percentage of people are immune, at which point transmission is dampened down enough to protect even those who can’t, or won’t, get vaccinated. Herd immunity seems to be out of reach. Without it, outbreaks of the virus will still happen, but the hope is for these outbreaks to be rapidly contained.
Not so the rest of the world.
Compared to the rate of vaccination in the 50 poorest countries of the world, the rate in the 50 richest countries is 27 times higher. The continent of Africa accounts for 14 percent of the world’s population, yet only 1 percent of the world’s vaccine doses have been administered there. The COVID surge that is happening in India could happen in any country with a vulnerable population. The time to vaccinate is now.
To put it another way, as we read about the loss of precious human beings around the world, 10,000 a day at this point (and 3.5 million since the pandemic began), we can hear the echoes of the tolling of the bells announcing their deaths. With a nod to John Donne, I say that each one of those deaths diminishes each one of us, because we are involved in mankind.
Let us not ignore those tolling bells just because they are coming from across an ocean.
They toll for us.