Governments around the world tend to follow their own national interests instead of pursuing a more globally coordinated approach.
Everyone around the world has been profoundly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic that has been wreaking havoc. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their lives. The economic toll has been equally tragic with countless going jobless and with the potential to push more than 70 million people into extreme poverty. The world economy has been brought to its knees, with the situation created that will likely be felt for years to come.
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 is not whether they will receive the vaccine but which one and when. No other countries in Europe need vaccines as badly as in the Balkans, except for Serbia. The proportion of the population who have received vaccines in Serbia is among the highest in the continent, with more than a million doses secured from Russia and China. It is an advantage for a candidate for EU membership who at the same time is a historical ally to Russia and China.
Other countries in the Balkans had intended to wait for vaccines and rely on the promised solidarity of the EU, but have since become disillusioned. It will take years to vaccinate people living in developing countries. This is not only because of the lack of infrastructure to distribute the vaccines. It is also due to a lack of resources to negotiate the purchase of vaccines, which, in turn, feeds health and socio-economic inequalities.
Vaccine nationalism is not new. It has been part of long-standing inequities in the international system. But what is vaccine nationalism?
The pandemic has already introduced new phrases that were rarely before used in our languages: “social distancing”, “flattening the curve” and so on. Now there is a new phrase in use: “vaccine nationalism”.
Vaccine nationalism happens when countries sign agreements with pharmaceutical companies to supply their own citizens with vaccines ahead of them becoming available for the rest of the world.
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 countries write, or use, are instruments of worsening and extending global inequalities — be it in trade, climate change, or health access. For example, rich countries 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 is a display of monopolizing research findings.
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 are efforts like the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX) that focus on the rapid, fair, and equitable distribution of vaccines. These are 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.
Beyond the moral imperative, the fewer resources and bargaining power will prolong COVID-19. The pandemic will not be controlled until it is controlled everywhere. Globalized health hazards underscore the need for collective global action. This is 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 pandemic 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 is 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 fair 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 the pandemic 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. To be clear, while the talk of vaccines seems to be the only hope to recover from the pandemic, we should not lose sight of equally important measures – from basic hygiene interventions to economic recovery efforts as well as social support systems.
The rush to hoard, vaccines also tend to confirm developing countries’ perceptions about the global order – that is, every country is for itself and international institutions are weak. This risks eroding further global solidarity against a global crisis and makes it difficult to enforce the frameworks mentioned earlier.
The most likely and indeed justified response to the pandemic is saving lives and apply many ad hoc measures required to address the economic and social fallouts from the virus. The challenge often, however, is the lack of attention to a crisis in a more systematic way with a medium to long-term perspective.
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