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Vaccine Nationalism and Geopolitics of COVID-19

By Ulviyya Bayramli :- 

Ever since its early days, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a true test of multilateralism, exposing the cracks and weaknesses within the international system. Throughout its development, certain aspects of the pandemic have been politicized, with some countries putting their nationalistic agendas above the collective health of the international community. Among the unfortunate tendencies ignited by the pandemic, the most recent and the most pressing one today is what has been referred to as “vaccine nationalism”. Global vaccine distribution has been neither fair nor equal, with even developed countries quarrelling amongst themselves about the distribution of vaccines.

More than three-quarters of 128 doses of vaccines administered have been deployed in 10 countries, which make up 60 percent of the global Gross Domestic Product. While almost 130 countries (a total of 2.5 billion people) have yet to administer a single dose of COVID-19 vaccines, others have secured enough to vaccinate their entire populations multiple times over: Canada, for instance, has the highest coverage per capita with 500 percent of its population covered, followed by the United Kingdom with 327 percent. From moral, aetiologic and economic perspectives, vaccine nationalism is a self-defeating strategy that works against every state’s best interests, only prolonging the crisis.  

From a moral point of view, vaccine nationalism is not only causing the pandemic to last, but it also has the potential of leading to preventable deaths of the most vulnerable populations in developing countries. Vaccinating those at low risks in countries without or before vaccinating those at high risk is inevitably causing preventable deaths. During an international webinar titled “Geopolitics of COVID-19 pandemic and vaccination” and hosted by Azerbaijan’s Center of Analysis of International Relations, Paulo Botta, president of the Centre for Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies (CEMOC) in Argentina, talked about the big need, limited offer and financial/political constraint of vaccines in Latin America. While being over-represented in terms of deaths by COVID-19, Latin America is still at the early stage of vaccine implementation. During the same event, Cesar Edgardo Martinez Flores, Executive Director of the Center for Foreign Relations Studies (CEERES) in El Salvador, stated that “in public health and basic services we have failed as a society: with COVID-19 we saw the rebuilding of nationalism”. Talking about the detrimental effects of vaccine nationalism on cooperation, Mr. Flores said how fighting against one another to get vaccinated first was only making the crisis worse and forcing its cycle to prevail.

As the incumbent chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the largest international organization after the United Nations, Azerbaijan holds not just a moral but an official responsibility to advocate for equal vaccine distribution. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Azerbaijan has decided to take a NAM-wise coordinated approach towards this crisis and has chosen a multilateralist approach with initiatives like the online Summit of the Non- Aligned Movement (NAM) called “United Against COVID-19” held under Azerbaijani chairmanship in May 2020. Delivering a statement on behalf of 120 Member States of the NAM at a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly in Response to the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic in December of 2020, president Ilham Aliyev stated that “NAM stresses the importance of affordable, unhindered and equitable access by all countries to medicines, vaccines and medical equipment, which should constitute an integral part of a coordinated and effective global response to COVID-19”.

Referring to the row between the European Union and the United Kingdom about vaccine distribution during an interview to national television, President Aliyev stated “If developed countries can’t share these vaccines fairly and make mutual accusations, then what should other countries do? Who will help poor countries, those living in developing countries? Doesn’t anyone think about that? I have not heard such calls from the leaders of developed countries so far.”

To quote World Health Organization (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “Vaccine equity is not just the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do”. A study commissioned by the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) Research Foundation discovered that vaccine nationalism could cause the global economy up to US$ 9.2 trillion, with half of that amount falling on advanced economies. According to the study, states are economically better off if they invest in the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT Accelerator), a “groundbreaking global collaboration to accelerate development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines”. Investing US$27.2 billion in the ACT Accelerator (the currently existing funding gap of the collaboration) is expected to return 166 times the investment. The study also demonstrated that those economies with high degrees of international exposure will suffer the most. Therefore, it is the advanced economies with international linkages that have much to lose; global vaccine distribution will advantage them.

To reach global vaccine solidarity also means ending “vaccine hoarding” with higher-income countries donating their vaccine surplus doses to the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility (COVAX), the vaccines pillar of the ACT Accelerator, which aims to make the vaccines available everywhere in the world. According to WHO chief Dr. Ghebreyesus, due to the direct bilateral deals made between high-income countries and vaccine manufacturers, COVAX is experiencing shortfalls in its vaccine allocations to poorer countries: “Even if you have the money, if you cannot use the money to buy vaccines, having the money doesn’t mean anything.” Only by respecting the deals that COVAX made and by working together instead of turning towards bilateral deals with supply companies, countries can reduce the risk of shortfalls and also allow equal vaccine distribution amongst the most vulnerable. In this regard, a situation similar to what happened during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic, where the highest bidders received vaccines, can and must be avoided. 

The question of vaccine equity is also critical from aetiological perspectives. The longer the virus cannot be suppressed, the higher are the chances of it mutating, as already witnessed with the UK, South African and Brazilian variants of the virus, which also makes it possible for the variants to evade the vaccines. For example, the biotech firm Novavax has stated that although its experimental vaccine has shown to be 85 percent effective against the UK variant of COVID-19, its effectiveness against the South African variant (which is now responsible for more than 90 percent of COVID-19 cases in South Africa) was less than 50%. With claims that mass COVID-19 immunization in poor countries will be achieved only by 2024, new variants are bound to emerge, threatening the progress towards stabilization. 

Unless international collaboration is strengthened in the vaccination program, the virus will continue to circulate, mutate, cause more preventable deaths and reduce global economic output. Considering this, it is less costly to join the initiative of fair vaccine distribution and follow the motto of “No one is safe, until everyone is”. Sticking to vaccine nationalism and rejecting a globalized approach to this global problem will make it much longer for the world to get back to what used to be normal. Vaccine equity is not only a question of morality but one of ensuring the fastest road to recovery.

(Ulviyya Bayramli is an Advisor at the Baku-based Center of Analysis of International Relations.)

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