Vaccine Nationalism exacerbates global faultlines | Daily News

Vaccine Nationalism exacerbates global faultlines

A health worker inoculates another colleague with a COVID-19 Coranavirus vaccine.
A health worker inoculates another colleague with a COVID-19 Coranavirus vaccine.

The competitive nature of international politics and the rise of ‘me first’ nationalism have again been starkly highlighted by developed nations as they scramble to corner COVID vaccines for their citizens in order to beat the global rampage of the pandemic. Wealthy nations have turned towards subsiding their own pharmaceutical companies and locking in vaccine supplies for their population.

Developed countries, otherwise accustomed to using foreign aid to arm-twist governments in developing countries, are now busy managing their domestic pandemic situation. Tightening border controls and restricting travel has become the new normal. Developing countries have been forgotten.

Global response

The global response to the pandemic and its economic impact has been incoherent, unlike the G20 response in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

There appears to be a breakdown in the global effort to tackle the pandemic, hitherto never witnessed before when viruses like SARS-2 and Ebola hit. Major powers then had collaborated effectively to meet the challenge and prevented a global pandemic. In fact, in 2014, the US and China had collaborated closely to establish treatment centres and supply medication that effectively met the Ebola challenge. Lack of an orderly response to COVID has rendered global institutions like the WHO crippled, in striking contrast to the success achieved by it earlier. This tragic situation has been characterised as a ‘moral failure’ by the director general of WHO. The latter cannot be absolved of culpability as he mishandled the initial response to the pandemic.

By monopolising vaccine supplies, developed countries are laying the foundation of a global humanitarian crisis. If such countries are relegated to the last in line for vaccine supply, economic recovery will be hit badly. Given the nature of global trade and interdependence of supply chains, nations will have to swim together or suffer sustained economic downturn. According to the OECD, around $11 trillion of the $18 trillion traded in 2019 was in intermediate goods that were part of global supply chains. Non-availability of vaccines to developing countries will add another layer of inequity to an economically stratified global community.

Access to vaccine

Former US President Trump did nothing to address these issues and the world is now waiting for President Biden to ensure American policy is reversed. It is estimated that developing countries, if denied funds and vaccines, will take three-four years to vaccinate their population. Another unfortunate trend is the unseemly fight between pharmaceutical companies and the EU and UK over access to vaccine supplies. AstraZeneca has indicated that it will not be able to supply vaccines promised earlier to the EU. The Union has promptly threatened to impose restrictions on vaccine exports, obliquely alleging that the pharma companies want to divert vaccines to more lucrative markets like the UK from manufacturing units in the EU. The UK has put in controls on export of various pharma products to lock in supplies for its own population.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, at the World Economic Forum, accused wealthy countries of hoarding vaccines far more than their requirement. The EU has locked in supplies for more than twice its population. It is smarting at criticism that it is trailing other wealthy countries, like the US, UK, Israel and others in its vaccination coverage of its population. Any selective application of export controls will run afoul of WTO rules on universality of restrictions, though the regulations recognise exemption grounds of national security and health emergencies.

Has the world changed so fundamentally as a result of four years of Trumpism? The EU’s Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China, announced on the eve of President Biden’s assumption of office, was another clear signal of transatlantic discord and a blowback for Trumpism.

Developing countries dependent on foreign exchange remittances will be hit hard as the flows have fallen to 20% of $554 billion in 2019. The pandemic will deliver a double whammy to the nations that depend on tourism and commodity exports.

COVAX initiative

The COVAX initiative launched by the WHO to help developing countries is hugely underfunded and may not vaccinate more than 20% of the population of the developing nations unless funds are provided urgently and orders placed for vaccines. The EU’s export controls will also hit vaccine supplies to many developing countries. While EU nations are prone to grandstanding on human rights issues, their recourse to vaccine nationalism exposes their double standards. India has carefully charted a course that avoids vaccine nationalism. The depth in the pharma sector has been the foundation on which she has crafted her vaccine diplomacy. Operation Vaccine Maitri has now reached out to countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America, with vaccine supplies reaching diverse nations.

India’s neighbours, barring Pakistan, and other countries in the extended neighbourhood, have received their first consignments as grants. This is despite the huge domestic demand for the vaccination campaign that India kicked off in January. Having supplied medication and medical kits earlier to combat the pandemic, the external affairs minister put it aptly by saying: “We are more nationalistic, but at the same time we don’t see a tension between being nationalistic and being international.” He was articulating a policy that has inspired India’s vision of internationalism that began a few years after Independence, with it reaching out as a development partner to newly independent countries in Asia and Africa emerging from years of exploitative colonial rule.

India recognises that the global system is deeply interconnected. The ‘me first’ approach is short-sighted and will not help the fight against the pandemic. Unlike China, which has demanded quid pro quos, India has scrupulously avoided that approach.

- Indian Express