I’ve seen a few opinion pieces recently about “vaccine diplomacy”, how countries are using the COVID-19 vaccines as part of their foreign relations. The term “vaccine diplomacy” is uncomfortable and unethical–it seems incredibly wrong to use a much-needed medical resource as a bargaining chip. The world has been pinning its hopes for a return to normalcy on the development and distribution of vaccines, but global inequalities mean that a few countries have millions of surplus doses while “some 130 countries in the world haven’t done any vaccinations at all.” (BBC). Ahead of the G7 summit, Boris Johnson pledged that the UK would share its surplus vaccines with the developing world through Covax. Emmanuel Macron announced that 5% of France’s vaccines would go to poorer countries, and directly tied this move to diplomatic interests. “It’s an unprecedented acceleration of global inequality and it’s politically unsustainable too because it’s paving the way for a war of influence over vaccines…You can see the Chinese strategy, and the Russian strategy too.” China and Russia were quick to share PPE with poorer countries last year, when supplies were scarce, and they’ve already begun sharing vaccines, too. The US has contributed funding (it was one of Biden’s first moves as President), but is waiting for its own population to be vaccinated before donating surplus vaccines. This cautious approach is understandable, but might be shortsighted. As a recent New York Times op-ed put it, “Poor countries will remember who came to their assistance, and when.” It’s important for the US to look like part of the solution and live up to new President Biden’s rhetoric.
Sharing the vaccine is a way for wealthy countries to generate some goodwill, but beneath this veneer of altruism there is also basic self-interest at play. The pandemic will not be resolved anywhere until it is resolved everywhere. Vaccinating on a global scale is the only way out of the pandemic, and it requires unprecedented levels of international cooperation and, crucially, investment.
Covax is the largest effort in this area, aiming to guarantee fair and equitable access to the vaccine for every country in the world.
Unfortunately it is underfunded, despite contributions from wealthy countries that have made headlines. In the recent G7 leaders’ statement, they “reaffirm [their] support for ACT-A and COVAX…” yet “collective G7 support totals $7.5 billion.” That’s not nearly enough. It’s tiny compared to the amount of money that the billionaire class has made over the past year. According to a recent Oxfam report, the world’s 10 richest men became $540 billion richer during the pandemic. Some of them are contributing to COVID-19 recovery–the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which was already active in vaccine programmes before the pandemic, contributed $1.75 billion. But others are not contributing on that scale, further highlighting the inequalities that increased their wealth while billions around the world became poorer–and the G7 countries could certainly do more.
There are also concerns about the effectiveness of COVAX, given that it is not aiming for universal vaccination. Even if it were to be fully funded, it may not go far enough.
“...even if the Covax plan works, it’s only designed to cover 20% of each nation’s population – far short of the herd immunity expected in wealthy countries.”Covid vaccines: Boris Johnson pledges surplus to poorer countries at G7, BBC, 19 February 2021
COVAX is certainly the right idea, but it needs even more international cooperation and financial commitment. Resolving the pandemic demands major restructuring and reform, on a global scale. This piece in the BMJ recommended a number of international institutional reforms aimed at more equitable governance. “The shared disaster of the covid-19 pandemic has drawn attention to the many regressive realities of our world, each one calling for immediate reform in the governance of global health. Without such measures, the unfair, extractive, and regressive patterns of the past will continue to plague the present.” Learning these lessons could help us face future pandemics and confront other shared problems, like climate change. While the wealthy countries have a duty to take the lead in terms of funding, they should also ensure equal participation and include voices from every country in the process of solving this global public health crisis. As former Under-Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Tara Sonenshine wrote in The Hill last week, “COVID-19 presents a rare opportunity to return to “soft diplomacy” and seeing the world as a global community with shared problems and shared solutions.”