Vaccine nationalism isn’t new. It also masks deeper problems in the international and regional systems in which a set of conditions entrenches economic and social inequalities.
With the discovery of vaccines for COVID-19 in a record time, we thought that the end of the pandemic was finally in view and indeed a cause of celebration.
Yet, with the developed countries claiming the lion’s share of doses for themselves, the majority of the world’s population are unlikely to be immunized in 2021, prolonging the impacts of COVID-19.
For people in rich countries, the question isn’t whether they’ll receive the vaccine but which one and when. It’ll take years to vaccinate people living in developing countries. This isn’t only because of the lack of infrastructure to distribute the vaccines. It’s also due to a lack of resources to negotiate the purchase of vaccines, which, in turn, feeds health and socio-economic inequalities.
Welcome, once again, to ‘vaccine nationalism’!
This isn’t new. Also, we aren’t using it in an accusatory sense. It’s a tragic obstacle to inclusive systems for goods and services. It has been part of long-standing inequities in global and regional systems.
Back in 1996, antiviral drugs revolutionized HIV/AIDS treatment in the developed world, saving many lives. However, it took almost a decade for the drugs to be widely available in other parts of the world such as Africa, the hardest hit continent.
Also, experience from the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, smallpox and polio, and the onset of the novel coronavirus suggests that in responding to such public health crises, governments around the world tend to follow their own national interests instead of pursuing a more globally coordinated approach.
Laws that rich nations write, or use are instruments of worsening and extending global and regional inequalities — be it in trade, climate change, or health access. For example, rich nations rejected initiatives in the World Trade Organization (WTO) to waive traditional protections on intellectual property for developing countries to make affordable versions of the vaccines. This’s a display of monopolizing research findings.
High debt burdens also limit the ability of many developing countries to pay for vaccines. Added to this, even if vaccines are available, hurdles like the complexity of delivering a cold chain infrastructure for remote communities are tough to beat.
Why should we be concerned?
COVID-19 has laid bare two contradictions. On the one hand, humanity is interconnected, and that anything that happens in one place concerns the whole of humanity. On the other hand, governments tend to follow their own interests instead of pursuing a more globally coordinated approach.
There’s a cure to the vaccine, but is there for vaccine nationalism?
There’re efforts like the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX) that focus on the rapid, fair, and equitable distribution of vaccines. These’re encouraging initiatives to minimize vaccine nationalism from becoming a barrier to defeating COVID-19, for example, through preventing simply selling vaccines to the highest bidder.
In our work as development practitioners, we apply principles of inclusive systems, mainly targeting and reaching those who are excluded and disadvantaged. For us, people are more than statistics, and a count reveals only so much. At times, unfortunately, the conversations about the pandemic and its impacts tend to ‘normalize’ the number of deaths and the level of anguish.
Beyond the moral imperative, the fewer resources and bargaining power will prolong COVID-19. The pandemic won’t be controlled until it’s controlled everywhere. Globalized health hazards underscore the need for collective global action. This’s a major risk to the tremendous achievements in reducing poverty and promoting social justice across the globe over the past few decades.
Amid the chest-thumping nationalism, physical distancing regulations and measures will continue to affect key sectors of the developing economies negatively, considering that most of them rely on close physical proximity between people.
Also, many of the travel restrictions that we all want to see lifted would have to remain in place. Global trade will continue to suffer, with many countries looking inwards by keeping their borders closed. Some of the countries will remain unsafe to travel to. To end the COVID-19 saga and mitigate the cascade of crises with it, the vaccines must be available everywhere, not only where it can be afforded.
Furthermore, the call for equitable access goes beyond equity between countries. It’s also about equity within countries. Vaccines should be given first to those who need them the most, meaning the elderly, the frontline and health workers, and people with chronic and severe health issues. The vaccines must go to where it is needed.
Investing in equitable access to vaccines is economically beneficial in the long run as it makes more business sense and could form the basis for boosting global collaboration.
A study from the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Research Foundation has found that the global economy stands to lose as much as US$9.2 trillion if governments fail to ensure developing economy access to COVID-19 vaccines. Also, estimates show that the cost of providing a vaccine for everyone is less than 1 percent of the projected cost of COVID-19 to the global economy.
And to keep all this together, enforceable frameworks for vaccine development and distribution are needed. This way, the countries will be bound by an agreement that will be managed by established international fora.
Let's not lose sight of the bigger picture
To be clear, while the talk of vaccines seems to be the only hope to recover from the pandemic, we shouldn’t lose sight of equally important measures, and improvement of systems – from basic hygiene interventions to economic recovery efforts as well as social support systems.
The rush to hoard vaccines also tends to confirm developing countries’ perceptions about the international order – that is, every country is for itself and international institutions are weak and not dependable. This risks eroding further global solidarity against a global crisis.
The most likely and indeed justified response to the pandemic is saving lives and supporting short-term humanitarian efforts. Many ad hoc measures are required to address the economic and social fallouts from the pandemic. The challenge often, however, is the lack of attention to a crisis in a more systematic way with a medium to long-term perspective.