A nationalistic stance towards the pandemic would only make things worse
The Covid-19 vaccine is discovered; streams of joy and waves of relief blow all over the world. Coronavirus infection is no longer a cause of death. The planet finds a new life. The vaccine has reached people’s doorsteps.
The production and distribution of a vaccine is of great concern, with over a hundred attempts ongoing across the globe. But even if one or more vaccines are developed, it will not eradicate the public health concern.
Vaccines are not a panacea, only a medical tool. Rich countries are engaging in aggressive procurement efforts and this will have significant political, economic, strategic, and public health implications. To be sure, so far, “vaccine nationalism” could result in the pandemic lasting longer, preventing the proper distribution of vaccines in fighting against Covid-19.
A most pressing question: Who should be vaccinated first?
What is vaccine nationalism?
Vaccine nationalism occurs when a government secures vaccination doses for its population before they are made accessible in other countries. It is accomplished by pre-purchase agreements between a government and a vaccine manufacturer. In essence, you put the lives of your own first, rather than cooperating and fighting against the pandemic.
Recent trends and the key statistic
Several countries have pre-ordered millions of vaccine doses. According to Global News, the United Kingdom, for instance, is first in line to purchase 30 million doses from British drug-maker AstraZeneca, planning to manufacture a promising Covid-19 vaccine developed by Oxford University, if it proves to be successful.
At least four EU countries have also signed an accord with AstraZeneca that would see the drug-maker deliver 400 million doses of that vaccine. The United States, too, has an agreement with AstraZeneca to receive at least 300 million doses of the vaccine and also signed a contract with Pfizer for the first 100 million doses of a vaccine that the company is working to develop.
This, according to global health charity Medecins Sans Frontieres,“will further fuel the global scramble to hoard vaccines by rich countries and feed a dangerous trend of vaccine nationalism.”
Is this new?
Vaccine nationalism is not a new phenomenon. We’ve seen such nationalistic behaviour and its far-reaching effects before. Some of the richest countries signed pre-purchase deals with many pharmaceutical companies working on H1N1 vaccines during the early stages of the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, also known as the swine flu, which killed as many as 284,000 people globally.
Just after the 2009 pandemic began to stabilize and demand for a vaccine dropped did developed countries offer vaccine doses to poorer nations.
Geopolitics and the vaccine race
Current geopolitical trends suggest that breaking the tit-for-tat between two superpowers and the race for a vaccine would be practically impossible. As proof, China’s consulate in Houston was closed by the US, accusing the Chengdu staff of interfering with its internal affairs and stealing intellectual property.
In response, China ordered the closure of the US consulate in Chengdu’s south-west city on July 24. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the US collaborated on public health including a major campaign to eradicate smallpox.
But Beijing and Washington working together sounds more like a fantasy than a plausible prospect right now. At the same time, the US, UK, and Canada have made accusations that hackers linked to Russia have attempted to steal vaccine research.
China is desperately trying to prove its scientific prowess. A vaccine will allow it to exhibit extensive strength, including research capability. President Xi Jinping aims to demonstrate the Chinese system as the most efficient and announced in May that any vaccine China creates will be a global public good.
Developing the first effective vaccine would certainly help China to encounter criticism due to the coronavirus outbreak; it will also enhance national pride.
Powerful and rich countries are narrowly focusing on their interests and missing the point of looking outward. Governments across Europe and the world are spending money on pharmaceutical companies and other vaccine developers hoping to secure doses for their populations.
But not all countries have the means to make those investments. This is self-interest, a nationalistic approach that is limited and shortsighted. Because nobody is safe unless everybody’s safe.
Looking outward is the solution
It’s almost impossible to uproot nationalism from the equation. But the best antidote is international cooperation, an enforceable Covid-19 vaccine trade and investment agreement that would alleviate the fears of leaders in vaccine-producing countries.
It would be easier if the US and China could get together on this and coordinate efforts, especially if they could do it through the WHO. Many of the world’s scientists are already doing this whereas governments aren’t.
We need to make sure that this spirit of global solidarity and this principle of vaccines as a public good is put at the heart of the political agenda on Covid-19. A universal social contract for a people’s vaccine against Covid-19 is a moral imperative that brings all of us together.
Covid-19 Global Access Vaccine (COVAX) Facility is one of the most prominent efforts, which is fundamentally a financing instrument so that all countries can have equal access to a vaccine. It is led by Gavi, a public-private partnership that works on immunization efforts in developing countries. COVAX’s goals are to prevent what happened during the swine flu pandemic when rich countries waited to distribute a vaccine to lower-income countries.
At the national level, every government should start to think about the way of distributing those vaccines it produces or receives. One way would be to administer it first to health-care workers, followed by police, firefighters, the military, teachers, and other essential workers.
At the international level, things get even more complicated. Seeking this nationalistic approach to a vaccine is a recipe for disaster. Only a handful of countries will be able to produce and distribute viable vaccines. So, the approach must be global.
It is not just an ethical and humanitarian matter, but also economic and strategic, as global recovery requires a collective effort.
Winners and losers?
A nationalistic stance toward the pandemic would deepen this global political, health, and economic crisis. Vaccine nationalism is not only morally and ethically reprehensible, but also contrary to every country’s economic, strategic, and health interests.
If developed countries choose the path of nationalism, there will be no winners; ultimately, every country will be a loser.
Md Jahid Hashan is a post-graduate student of political science, University of Dhaka.