‘Vaccine Nationalism’ Is Relatively in Order, and the EU Has Handled It Much Better than the US
Ardent criticism of “vaccine nationalism” has been prominent in the “international community” (that old cliché still largely boiling down to the West, first and foremost, and then the Rest) since the stages of the COVID-19 pandemic that came right after the initial shock and awe of spring 2020.
As the pioneering coronavirus vaccination campaigns went underway at the end of 2020 and early 2021, especially with them supposedly starting to bear fruit a year after the onset of the pandemic, indignation against “vaccine nationalism” has become more pronounced.
Expectedly, global do-gooders have understood vaccine nationalism amid the COVID-19 pandemic not as the unhealthy, unnecessary, unfair and selfish hoarding of vaccines and vaccine production materials by some nations to the detriment of others but as the unhealthy, unnecessary, unfair and selfish hoarding of vaccines and vaccine production materials by “rich, Western nations” to the detriment of the “poor” “Global South”.
Indignation on part of globalized self-proclaimed social justice warriors has partly drawn a picture smacking of a neocolonialist, big-business-capitalism-fueled-unfair-trade egotism on part of Western states and societies (whose citizens understandably wish to overwhelm the pandemic and get back some normalcy as soon as possible).
Never mind that the leading and most efficient (as it appears) anti-COVID-19 vaccines have been developed by Western corporations and scientific institutes. (But, then again, in those narratives, historically the West hasn’t done what all humans have done in their universal back-in-the-day ways of competition and survival, it’s just perceived as different by being evil at least on some level.) Or never mind how the pandemic started, and/or who should have acted more responsibility, and failed to prevent it.
The controversial chief of the UN health agency, the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, formalized the term “vaccine nationalism” in August 2020 by warning against it.
Sure, what else is a UN body supposed to say, and who else is supposed to give out at least a semblance of togetherness among planet Earth’s nation-states and other states (which don’t exactly fit the Europe-centric nation-state definition) that a members of the global intergovernmental organization.
Being more liberal, more open, more fair-minded (compared to others), and more post-modern than all else in the West, the European Union has occupied a special place (in all fairness, it occupies a special place in pretty much everything) in the target practice of the more fiery vaccine nationalism critics.
With its post-modern stature and setting high moral standards at least in principle (and even trying to follow up on those, sometimes even honestly, which is a great novelty in world politics since prehistory), the EU as usual is making itself vulnerable (I’d say justifiably so). This in turns makes it the easiest candidate for firebrand criticism-turning-into-blame. Global fairness expectations for other “Western actors” such as the now Brexited UK, the United States, or even the likes of Canada, Australia, and Switzerland are always at least a tad smaller. Not that they have been immunized against vaccine nationalism blame but the perpetual human practice of going after the weakest or most vulnerable link always works.
The fact of the matter is that the well-intentioned critics of vaccine nationalism do make a whole list of great points, nobody with any common sense would deny that. Those range from the moral imperative of striving for planet-wide human fairness and unselfishness, and for overcoming global socio-economic disparities, to self-interest-based arguments that rushing to fully vaccinate your own population while abandoning others would backfire as the virus would be imported again from the disadvantaged countries, particularly after having mutated into more dangerous variants that could overwhelm vaccine protection.
That all makes perfect sense. Who in their right mind would declare themselves opposed to all humans having equal-right access to vaccines, and to working together in one giant concerted, glorious effort on part of the human civilization to beat down the perfidious coronavirus?
The problem with that vision is that such never giant concerted, glorious planetary effort has never occurred before, and, while motion towards progress should humanity’s number one goal, the state of the “international community” isn’t ripe for it yet.
In order words, the attacks on vaccine nationalism, which result from (either) noble principles and/or anti-West hate, fail to account for both realism and practicality. So much so that the failure to account for those risks turning passionate criticism of vaccine nationalism into sheer empty talk.
Of course, the human nations who – or whose corporations and institutes develop and make the vaccines – are going to wish to take care of themselves first and foremost. It’s basic human nature. It doesn’t even matter that there might be valid counterarguments such as the fact that the “rich Western countries” have much higher shares of elderly people than poorer developing countries, and COVID-19 affects those age groups disproportionately harder (sure, another epitome of their overprivileged). It’s just how humans do things. There’s not need to resort to the airplane safety manual argument to help yourself first before trying to help others. Sure, a quest for altruism is always commendable but it hardly ever overwhelms selfish self-interest, and that may – or may not – be for the better.
Then come the practical concerns. Anybody thinking that a gradual, fair, prioritized worldwide inoculation campaign benefiting all humankind around the planet at the same time, at an equal pace, on a fair rate of progress could be possible in today’s “international community, in the absence of a “world government”, or single human nation, or state, or whathaveyou, is just out of it.
Even if realism, i.e. natural selfishness mentioned above, wasn’t an issue, the sheer logistics of such a theoretical lofty endeavor as an all-out fair, simultaneous universal access inoculation campaign would be a nightmare. It can’t be done. Maybe it could be possible in hundreds of years, in a different international community, if in the meantime humanity isn’t wiped off the face of the Earth by any from a long list of candidates for the job, climate change being the frontrunner.
That is why this article’s title states that vaccine nationalism is somewhat in order. Is it the ideal, unconditionally noble and most moral situation? Certainly not. But it is in order since it is based on the human order of doing things since humanity’s day 1.
That is also why, with realism and practicality in mind, the best approach towards “vaccine nationalism” in the COVID-19 pandemic, and the best course of considering it critically, should be not to blindly lash out against it but to seek to mitigate it on both moral and practical grounds: by making use of all tangible realistic and practical options to help others while also helping yourself as quickly as possible.
The rationale shouldn’t be to deny, at least in passionate critical tirades, the “privileged” nations their “right of first access” and securing supplies but to work off that as much as possible to share what’s available in the most responsible and practical manner.
(By the way, then, again, the argument that “privileged” countries do have more vulnerable populations to COVID-19 due to their age pyramids does hold true so this is actually a pretty strong moral case in favor of “vaccine nationalism” – vaccines should be going first and in largest numbers to the most vulnerable human populations, right?)
It is precisely this moderate or moderated, or even “enlightened” version of “vaccine nationalism” which the European Union has managed to offer and come to demonstrate simply by following the mixture of its own principles and political-administrative mechanisms.
In that regard, the European Union has done much in helping others, than the other main pillar of the West, the United States.
The EU leaders offered very convincing statements to that end last week at the EU summit in Portugal.
As the quotes go (cited here),
“We encourage all the partners to facilitate the export of (vaccine) doses,” said European Council President Charles Michel.
“I’m very clearly urging the US to put an end to the ban on exports of vaccines and on components of vaccines that are preventing them being produced… Today, 100% of vaccines produced in the United States of America are for the American market,” said French President Emmanuel Macron.
“Now that a further part of the American population has been vaccinated, I hope that we can come to a free exchange of components and an opening of the market for vaccines,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, arguing that the EU has exported a large share of the vaccines made in the Union and that should “be the rule”
“Around 50% of what is being produced in Europe is exported to almost 90 countries,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, explaining that the EU had distributed about 200 million doses to its citizens so far, and had exported about 200 million doses abroad, the same amount.
At the same time, the United States has been sitting pretty on vaccine stockpiles, including what is reported to be 60 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, without it even being authorized for application in the US. US President Joe Biden in March 2021 made the grand gesture of pledging 4 million AstraZeneca doses (controversial as the vaccine might be) to America’s neighbors Canada and Mexico.
Against this backdrop, the Biden Administration has come up with the theoretically noble idea of waiving the intellectual property patents on vaccines so they can be copied and produced around the globe. EU leaders such as Germany’s Merkel have spoken out against that, for whatever reason. However, it does seem that ramping up production and exports to all parts of the globe probably holds a greater potential of helping quicker than the good-sounding waiving of intellectual property rights, whose impact might come more slowly, without even considering the political and public energy bound to be wasted in the debate surrounding the idea. In order words, the US would have done more good faster if it had started to release internationally part of its stockpiles, or at least the ones the US government isn’t planning to use.
It could be deduced then that the European Union’s version of “Western vaccine nationalism” has so far been morally and practically better than that of the United States.
“We are the most generous in the world of developed nations. Europe should be proud of itself,” French President Emmanuel Macron stated last week. He isn’t wrong.
In February, I argued that the European Union has actually handled the COVID-19 pandemic rather well, as good as it could be expected from it considering it was never built or intended for tackling such kind of a crisis. And now the European Union has actually handled “vaccine nationalism” better than anybody else, and has made a greater impact worldwide, pretty much doing as well as could be expected when accounting for both the realism and the practicality mentioned above.
In 2020 in particular, there were critics from both inside and outside the West arguing that the havoc the pandemic had wreaked in the EU demonstrated its failure, decline, doom, apocalypse, you name it, even to the point of making fun of it.
Such tirades were largely misled and misleading based on the EU’s self-pronounced democratic vulnerabilities, including the full openness, honesty and transparency about the gravity of the situation.
At the same time, in contrast to the EU approach, countless government of non-Western countries went to great lengths to hide death tolls and infection numbers, deny the problem, and cover up deliberate administrative and governance failures to stop the origin and spreading of the coronavirus pandemic…
It was also easily predictable at the time that poorer, less globally connected countries would be hit hard by COVID-19 somewhat later. Which is precisely what has happened.
Perhaps instead of lambasting the “vaccine nationalism” of “rich, developed, Western” actors such as the European Union with blind passion, critics should target those corrupt governments and regimes which have failed egregiously at tackling the spread of COVID-19, and have lied shamelessly about their failures, and their countries’ deaths and infections.
In terms of realistic and practical “vaccine nationalism” that allows helping the others while helping yourself, as well as in terms of tackling the pandemic in its own borders, the European Union has once again done and is continuing to do a rather decent job handling relatively well tasks and challenges it was never meant to handle.
(Above: Map from Wikipedia showing confirmed coronavirus cases per 100,000 by country or sub-national unit as of 10 May 2021)