Nearly two years have elapsed since the outbreak of the Covid-19 global health pandemic. As of July 2021, there have been more than 191 million reported cases of Covid-19. The death toll has passed four million people. No countries have been spared – in fact, all countries of the world now have reported cases of Covid-19. The use of face masks, hand sanitizers and social distancing, among other relevant measures, have become mandatory daily routines in many societies and are likely to remain the legacy of Covid-19 for years to come.
There is no doubt that the pandemic will go down in history as one causing multifaceted dislocations in social behaviour, large-scale unemployment, bankruptcies and trillions of dollars of economic devastation. While history records that the Justinian plague in the sixth century, the bubonic plague in the 14th century and the Spanish flu in the 20th century took even more lives, the long-term impacts of Covid-19 will persist.
Following the pandemic outbreak, numerous countries quickly put in place national vaccination programmes with the aim of mitigating the spread of the virus and enhancing their emergency preparedness and social resilience against the pandemic.
According to the New York Times, it is currently estimated that nearly four billion vaccine doses have been administered at a global scale, equivalent to 49 doses for every 100 people.
A major global achievement has hence been reached in facilitating the safe and orderly vaccination of people in different countries of the world.
Europe and North America are ahead and have nearly reached 80% in vaccination rates. South America and Asia follow suit, exceeding 50%, whereas other continents, such as Oceania and Africa are yet to achieve the same vaccination results.
In more developed countries, the roll-out of national vaccination programmes has resulted in numerous social and health benefits and brought them closer to normalcy.
The infusion of funding for vaccine development at its early stage enabled numerous governments to sign agreements with pharmaceutical manufacturers providing priority access to vaccines ahead of them becoming available for other countries.
For developing and less-wealthy countries, the situation is more critical as Covid-19 vaccine inoculation rates remain low. This can be ascribed to different reasons related to the lack of awareness and knowledge among the population regarding the adverse impact of the pandemic, insufficient efforts undertaken by governments to facilitate vaccine inoculation, inability of developing countries to secure access to vaccines, weak governance, sanctions, lack of public trust, social instability, armed conflict, and related insecurity, to name but a few of pertinent issues.
The World Health Organization has endeavoured to coordinate the international response, but politicization and greed have hindered the prompt exchange of information and equitable access to vaccines. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called for recognition of health as a human right. Similarly, in response to the uneven access to Covid-19 vaccines for developing countries, the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Guterres, tweeted in February 2021:
Progress on #COVID19 vaccinations has been wildly uneven & unfair. The world urgently needs a Global Vaccination Plan to bring together all those with the required power, expertise & production capacities. I am ready to mobilize the full @UN System in support of this effort.
The relatively rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines in many countries including the US, UK, Netherlands, Russia, China and Cuba provided much-needed optimism for the world to come to terms with the pandemic.
The lack of international solidarity was manifested in vaccine-hoarding by wealthy countries. This kind of “vaccine nationalism” for national priorities has left many developing countries without the ability to secure a fair and equitable allocation of safe and effective vaccines owing to the inability of pharmaceutical companies to meet up with global demand. Patent restrictions likewise play their part in enhancing vaccine inequity.
The recent announcement by US President, Joe Biden, however, to ramp up efforts and to share up to 80 million vaccine doses to countries in need of vaccine is a step in the right direction. China has already committed to providing more than 400 million vaccines to countries affected by Covid-19. Russia has likewise made similar arrangements to distribute the Sputnik V vaccine and has sealed up deals with different countries for this purpose.
But it appears that the donation of vaccines comes with political and economic strings attached.
According to the Foreign Policy magazine, Great Powers are actively engaging in vaccine diplomacy to accrue soft power influence with the ultimate main of securing trade and political benefits from vaccine recipient countries. Even more worrisome is the imposition of unilateral coercive measures by some countries against geopolitical rivals with the direct result of significantly reducing the abilities of targeted countries to effectively combat the pandemic.
Numerous countries have allegedly been pressured to make political and economic concessions in exchange of receiving vaccine doses. Sanctions have also impeded targeted countries from securing vaccine supplies compromising public health systems. Purchase of defence equipment, access to natural resources and approval of 5G technology projects have, according to a recent report by The Economist, also been offered in exchange for political influence and increased geopolitical footprint.
At a time when a global, unified, cooperative response is needed to address the health needs of billions of people, global health is emerging as a new arena for geopolitical power projection and political leverage.
Competition between countries in producing and providing an equitable supply of vaccines is healthy as it stimulates innovation and knowledge development, but this should not come at the expense of developing countries, global public health and compromising the progress achieved at a global scale to end the pandemic.
Unity of purpose and a global resolve to end the pandemic hinges on the ability of vaccine-producing countries and Great Powers to work together in the common interest of the world. That requires leaving political differences aside and considering Covid-19 as their main political opponent.