What is Vaccine Nationalism & what it means for us?

By: Behzad Taimur      Published: 09:44 PM, 21 Feb, 2021
What is Vaccine Nationalism & what it means for us?
–File photo

In just five days, we will be at the grim anniversary of our first Covid-19 case. So, what does the Covid-19 experience look like at this juncture? Today, let’s reflect on this butin a slightly different way. Ask yourself: Have you been vaccinated? Do you know anyone who has been vaccinated? In fact, do you or people you know have access to a Covid-19 vaccine? 

It is most likely that when you’re reading this, the answer to all of these questions will be negative. So, is there a problem here? I think, yes, there is a very big problem here. Vaccines are simply not widely available. A few thousand people have been vaccinated, sure. But broadly speaking, the vast majority of Pakistan still lives without a vaccine dose in their bodies and, more ominously, without access to it.

The government?  The privileged, uncaring politicians?. They ought to be blamed. Or so our “default” instinct will say so. . I’m sure we can blame the government.  There’s always something the government could do better. I will try to highlight a broader problem that forms the context to our current situation. Enter: Vaccine Nationalism

Before we get on with this so-named “Vaccine Nationalism”, let’s look at a few figures. Of the 200 million plus doses for Covid-19 vaccines that have thus far been administered, 59.59 million have been administered in the United States, 40.59 million in China, 25.46 million in the European Union (EU), and 17.47 million in the United Kingdom. Comparatively, Pakistan has managed to administer vaccines to just over 52,000 people. The thing to note here that is just three countries I have listed here have administered 58.82% of all doses administered. When you add the EU to this, this figure shoots up to 71.57%! 

We can look at this another way: we can look at how many doses of the various Covid-19 vaccines have been procured by different countries. So far, the US has secured supply of 1.21 billion doses (enough to vaccinate its entire population twice over!); the UK has secured 457 million doses (enough to vaccinate its entire population three and a half times over!); and, the European Union has secured 1.89 billion doses (enough to vaccinate its entire population two and a half times over!). Add Canada to this. The Canadians have secured 338 million doses which can vaccinate its entire population a whopping five times over! At this time, this is a world record. No other country can vaccinate its population as many times. 

Taken together, the US, UK, EU and Canada have nearly 3.9 billion doses between themselves – which comes to about 50.85% of the world population. Yet, the four of them actually only hold just 11.47% of the world’s population! 

So then, do you see a pattern here? Here is the more global problem of which we are also victims and which is serving as the title to the current chapter of the Covid-19 pandemic story. A handful of countries – all of them rich and situated in, what’s called, the “Global North” – have gobbled up most of the world’s supply of Covid-19 vaccines. This leaves very little for the remainder of the globe. In fact, the world collectively has the estimated capacity to produce between six and seven billion vaccine doses in a single year. Against this supply, just US, UK, EU and Canada have orders amounting to almost 61% of global vaccine production capacity. In other words, the remainder of 88.53% of the world’s population has to look toward just 39% of net production capacity to fulfill its needs!

Please note that I’m talking about the net capacity to produce all vaccines – not Covid-specific vaccines. A long list of other diseases, such as polio, tetanus, diphtheria, measles, among others, also require vaccines. The vaccines for all these other diseases and more, also need to come off of the same production capacity. Put simply, the pool from which 88.53% of humanity has to draw its Covid-19 vaccines is far, far smaller than the broad brushstroke-like figures given above. 

This phenomenon wherein countries push to get first access to a supply of vaccines and hoard doses in excess of their actual need is, what is called, “Vaccine Nationalism”. Here, countries work to secure excessive supplies of vaccines for their own population, leaving little for others. The hope in this is to ensure national health security by vaccinating all of their own populations as quickly as possible. In doing so, countries hope to overcome a given pandemic rapidly, open-up and get the wheels of their economies rolling again. 

While the richer, more powerful countries buy up large quantities of vaccines and increasingly less is available for the rest, the specter of a supply shortage begins to appear more and more real. This triggers similar buying sprees in other countries. Generally, this follows a rich-first dynamic. Or, richer or more powerful a country, the better is its ability to bite into the remainder. So, simply put, other countries mirror the Global Northern “seniors” and begin buying as many doses as they can. This leaves even less for the lesser well-off and lesser-powerful. We can already see this happening all around. For example, Australia and Chile have secured 124.8 million and 88.4 million doses respectively which come to 2.5 times their populations. 

Thus, vaccine nationalism breeds more vaccine nationalism and we get locked into an inequitable, combative cycle in which countries compete to secure supplies and the less rich, less powerful invariably lose out.

So this is the problem we are stuck in. We lack access to vaccines because there is not much vaccine supply for us to tap into. Since we lack access to supply, we cannot vaccinate our populations. 

Is lack of access and inability to vaccinate early-on the totality of the problem? In effect, not at all. You see, since we cannot vaccinate, we cannot roll back the pandemic quick enough. This means that transmission of Covid-19 will continue in unvaccinated populations. People will continue to fall sick. And, at least some of us and our loved ones will continue to pass away. In such a situation, governments around the world will continue to enforce measures such as lockdowns, physical distancing regulations, et al, in an effort to contain the virus. . Some sectors of the economy will have to be shut down. Some sectors will not function at full capacity. Functioning sectors will continue to see their employees and stakeholders fall sick, miss out on work and devote more and more of their time and resources to take care of their, and their families’ health. Likewise, as people continue to invest time, effort and finances in combating the health situation, they will have less to spend on consumer goods – for example, new cell phones or shoes or cars. And, as people have less to spare to buy things, demand in markets around the globe will remain suppressed. 

This, actually, circles back to the Global Northern countries who are out buying vaccines. The same countries are the production houses of our world. They produce the new cell phones (e.g. Apple or Samsung), the shoes (e.g. Nike or Adidas) and the cars (e.g. Chevrolet or Toyota), that people can no longer buy due to the pandemic. As a result, their economies will suffer as well. If for nothing else, then for the simple fact that there would no longer be as many buyers of their products out there, leading to contraction in their exports. 

In fact, researchers around the world have run the numbers on this. The well-known American RAND Corporation has estimated that vaccine nationalism is set to cost $1.2 trillion per annum to the global economy. Similarly, a study commissioned by the international business association, International Chamber of Commerce, estimates that vaccine nationalism could cost the world more than $9 trillion in the long run.

Finally, in event of a handful of countries securing most of the world’s Covid vaccine supplies, three other countries – that have ability to produce their own vaccines –  Russia, China and India – are stepping up. They have begun reserving parts of their own vaccine supplies to grant in aid or donate to such countries as are being left out of the global vaccine game. More often than not, the countries they aid also represent some strategic interest for the three. Here, China is quite in the lead with supply or donation agreements with dozens of countries, including Pakistan. Thus, vaccine nationalism is birthing, what we can call, ‘Vaccine Bilateralism’. The only result of this will be an increase in multiple countries in the influence these three rising powers enjoy. Naturally, their increase in influence will come at the cost of the influence that the Global North has so far enjoyed globally. 

Thus, to round it off, most countries around the world, including Pakistan, lack adequate access to Covid-19 vaccine supplies. This is only in part due to inaction or incompetency on their own part. A very significant reason for this lack of access is vaccine nationalism of the rich and powerful. Incidentally, the countries at the forefront of this are poised to lose more from their own acts of selfish interest. Should this reality dawn on policymakers in such countries, perhaps they would work to course correct – and rapidly. Until this does not happen, remainder of the world will begin to look increasingly toward Russia, China and India and bank on their own brands of “vaccine bilateralism” for succor. This is indeed happening in Pakistan and, interestingly, in Pakistan all three of these have a role to play. In fact, all three have already begun to act here. Yes, this includes India. But on that, we will talk more at a later point in time. 

But anyway and before that, a special thank you is due to my wife and colleague at a public university in Lahore, Ms. Fatima Hasan, for her assistance with this article.