People all over the world feel that Covid-19 has created a human catastrophe of a global dimension. They also feel the dire necessity of preventive vaccines to deal with this scourge of humanity. However, international politics of vaccine has retained a familiar pattern according to which states always take care of their own national interests at the cost of those of their rivals. According to this premise, global efforts are of secondary importance and thus subservient to the interests of the nation-states which are regarded as the primary units of international politics.
When the Covid-19 began ravaging the world in 2020 in an unprecedented way, different quarters, especially leaders of different countries, international organisations, and various international personalities called for the development of preventive vaccine and distributing the same on an equitable basis among different countries with a view to dealing with this catastrophe as part of common global humanitarian politics. From this viewpoint, they warned of the idea vaccine nationalism directly or indirectly advanced by different nations and some interested quarters.
The United Nations, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other international bodies advised different countries to give up vaccine nationalism and adopt an even-handed policy for the greater interest of humanity. Some countries such as India and South Africa also proposed that the poor countries of the global South would have fair and equal access to the vaccine, which various countries and pharmaceutical companies were striving to develop at that time. Accordingly, the WHO developed the program COVAX, according to which 92 poor countries would have access to the vaccine, which would cover 20% of their population. Interestingly, various vaccines were still at the experimental stage of their development at this time in different laboratories in several countries of the world.
Meanwhile, various attempts for the invention of the vaccines assumed national character because nations and companies seeking to invent vaccine were not willing to share their efforts as well as data either with any country or with company, though trial for various vaccines took place in several countries.
Finally, scientists were able to invent vaccines in several countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Russia and the People's Republic of China. India also joined them belatedly. Humanity as a whole welcomed these successful efforts for the invention of vaccines regardless of their national origin as part of the scientific efforts of the humankind. To be sure, scientists showed that they were able to rise to the occasion of dealing with this unprecedented crisis facing humanity.
However lofty their efforts might be for the service of a common humanity, their good intentions are now being frustrated by leaders of different states who have been working with real politik as motives of state action while dealing with vaccines across borders.
The result has been an uneven distribution of vaccine among countries. Rich and developed countries who have influence in international politics have bought vaccines for their citizens and are vaccinating them without much hurdle. On the other hand, poor and developing countries have not yet been able to purchase optimum number of vaccines from world pharmaceutical companies.
Vaccine nationalism has assumed such an unfair dimension that both the UN and the WHO have expressed frustration for the divide between countries of the global North and South in ensuring fair access to vaccines. According to Antonio Gutierrez, the UN Secretary-General, the divide between the rich and poor countries has further been exacerbated by the uneven access to the vaccine. UN chief's frustration is understandable because the NBC news has rightly pointed out that while the rich countries are hoarding vaccines, the poor ones are still missing from the market of the vaccines. To be sure, hoarding of vaccine by rich countries has turned out to be such an unfair game that the WHO has already warned that it is the main hurdle to the fair distribution of vaccine through the COVAX program. It deserves a special mention here that so far only one countries, Ghana and Ivory Coast in West Africa have received COVAX vaccine.
The United States and its allies have been facing diplomatic challenges to coordinate diplomatic efforts to help poor countries in their vaccination programmes. Otherwise, global efforts to eradicate Covid-19, these rich countries feel, would not be successful. Meanwhile German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that if the poor countries do not get access to the vaccines, then new variants might develop in those countries and ultimately endanger the global efforts to fight Covid-19.
As part of global efforts, US President Jo Biden has already announced that the US would allocate 4 billion US dollars to help poor countries buy vaccines. However, companies cannot compromise their higher margin of quick profit by selling vaccines to the rich countries such as the USA. This explains why these companies are busy to cater to the needs of the rich countries such as the USA and U.K.
However, the most important challenge facing the West is the initiatives of both China and Russia to supply the poor countries with cheaper vaccines that the West has not yet been able to provide them because of their market-driven approach. This explains why French President Emmanuel Macron said that the rich countries of the North should quickly provide 5% of their vaccine supplies to low-income nations. Otherwise, he warned that China and Russia were going to take advantage of this situation.
Under the existing world order, countries of the global North are still more powerful because of their economic and scientific clout. However, both Russia and China, the emerging superpowers have already challenged both the economic power and scientific monopoly of global North in meeting the demands of the Covid-19 vaccine of the countries of the global South. It is obvious that since both Sputnik V vaccine of Russia and Sinopharm vaccine have been successful in developing antibodies of those already inoculated, countries of the global South have started buying these vaccines from them. Both Russia and China have started providing the poor countries with cheaper vaccines because it is in their interest to do so as part of their competitive international politics with the countries of the global North.
Within the global South, both China and its traditional rival, India have also stepped up their vaccine diplomacy with a view to courting new allies and influencing existing friends. India seems to have upper hand over China in vaccine diplomacy in the Sub-continent where China had already made huge inroad among member countries of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) prior to the onset of the crisis of the Covid-19.
An analysis of the international politics of Covid-19 vaccine shows that in international politics, national interest always takes precedence over global interest because states are not willing to sacrifice their national interests for the common interests of the humanity. This has been the age-old cannon of international politics. This explains why even the global catastrophe such as the Covid-19 could not force the states to change their age-old practice of prioritising national interest over the common interest of the humanity. No doubt, there are globalists and do-gooders among us who strive to ensure fairness and justice amid this unprecedented crisis but their global dreams are always subject to the stark realities and rules of international politics.
Supad Kumar Ghose is Assistant Professor, Department of Bangladesh and Liberation War Studies, Noakhali Science and Technology University (NSTU)
Noakhali, Bangladesh. [email protected]