Illustration by Fatma Alrebh

I Was Aware of The Privilege of Being A Student at NYUAD. I Didn’t Know It Would Save My Life.

By virtue of being a student at NYUAD, I am safer than most during a public health crisis that has made crematoriums out of public parks. I am reckoning with that anger and guilt.

May 2, 2021

As of writing this, I have taken 35 PCR tests: one in Sri Lanka and the other 34 in Abu Dhabi. I also had my first dose of the Sinopharm vaccine on Jan. 25, as part of NYU Abu Dhabi’s vaccination drive. Less than a month later, I had my second dose. I am now, technically, protected against Covid-19 and it only took me a grand total of 20 minutes and the decision I made two years ago to attend NYUAD.
By virtue of being a student at NYUAD, I am safer than most during a public health crisis that has made crematoriums out of public parks. And I feel guilty — guilty that right now, I’m at a cafe, an iced coffee frappe on my right, distanced from the rapidly deteriorating situation back home in Sri Lanka, which is effectively being held hostage by the Global North and its desire to impose a western hegemony over the intellectual property and patent rights of Covid-19 vaccines.
This was expected. The Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX) program was instituted to prevent the unconscionable hoarding of vaccines and raw materials that is happening right now. It was meant to provide a semblance of fairness to the global geopolitical system that has consistently disadvantaged the Global South. Through the program, countries who lack the political and economic clout to produce their own vaccines or negotiate for them, were assured that they would be able to immunize 20 percent of their population.
Unsurprisingly, this did not happen. Instead, several countries including the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia continue to block an intellectual waiver proposal put forward by South Africa and India at the World Trade Organization that would have facilitated the decentralization of vaccine production. It would have boosted global production and made the vaccine more accessible to the vulnerable in the Global South. Instead, we now live in a different reality.
87 percent of doses administered so far have been in wealthy countries. 1 in 4 people in wealthy nations have received a dose, while only 1 in 500 have been jabbed in low-income countries. As thousands die in hospitals, streets and in their own homes across the Global South, the U.S. is now considering a reevaluation of its policy. And it was only recently that the U.S. decided to remove the embargo it had placed on India, preventing the export of raw materials necessary to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine by the Serum Institute of India. The effects of this embargo were felt beyond India as the SII was one of the key suppliers of the COVAX facility.
In the U.S., one only has to be above 16 years of age to be eligible for a vaccine. Achchi, my grandmother, who is 73 years old and Seeya, my grandfather, who is 76, both received the first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine back home in Sri Lanka. But given the current vaccine shortage, they are unlikely to receive the second dose anytime soon. When I pause and think about the fact that my grandparents, despite being at high risk of contracting the virus, will not be fully vaccinated for weeks — perhaps even months — to come, it becomes difficult to feel anything other than guilt. And anger.
This collapse of public health systems and the subsequent rise in the number of infected and the dead was predicted. There should have been policies and systems put in place to avoid the horror that seems to be getting worse each day. Instead, we chose to continue to place a greater premium on the arbitrary concepts of intellectual property, patent rights and national demarcations. It is dystopian that the U.S. is currently considering lifting the requirement of wearing masks in public while India is running out of oxygen. The choice to value inherently skewed systems of power that profit a select few over the lives of the vulnerable is perhaps the greatest indictment of our humanity.
A week ago, over a plate of kottu and lamprais, my friend told me that “we’re lucky”. Lucky that we are vaccinated, get tested weekly and will be taken care of if we were to contract the virus. In this light, we are lucky. I am as safe as I could hope to be during such a time.
Yet, I find it difficult to call myself lucky when the people I love and care about are back home, facing the worst of the virus. I find it difficult to call myself lucky when every day brings news of a death, even if the deaths aren’t my own. I find it difficult to call myself lucky when I spend each day anxiously waiting to call home and when my usual small talk has been replaced by “Has anyone tested positive?”
While it does a remarkable job of protecting us against the worst of the pandemic, the Saadiyat Bubble does not inoculate us against the fear and loss and grief felt by the world, especially the places we call home.
I was aware of the privilege my education at NYUAD gave me. I had access to a liberal arts education, which despite its flaws, taught and exposed me to ideals I would not have had access to back home. I was able to continue my undergraduate degree without worrying about electricity outages, student union strikes or general hartals. I still — hopefully — will have the opportunity to study away. I wish I did not view these aspects of my education as ‘privilege’, but I do and I acknowledged and came to terms with it. But what I cannot reconcile myself with is the privilege I possess right now, as a resident of the UAE and as a student of NYUAD — the dissonance between where I come from and where I am now has never felt so stark and so divisive.
For purely practical reasons, countries such as the U.S. should promote and invest in equitable vaccine distribution. The new Covid-19 variant found in India has been found in 10 other countries, including the U.S. and the U.K. Covid-19 neither recognizes nor respects national boundaries or intellectual property rights. It is foolish and selfish to pretend otherwise. In a time of crisis such as this, where each day brings loss and grief, to intentionally prevent the equitable distribution of a vaccine that is the difference between life and death is beyond a moral failure. It is calculated evil.
Githmi Rabel is Opinion Editor. Email her at
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