From Vaccine Nationalism To Vaccine Diplomacy

Nationalist and individualistic sentiment has, unsurprisingly, stifled international co-operation, this time in driving an unequal distribution of vaccines skewed against poorer nations, which find themselves stuck at the back of the queue. Most troublingly, an unequal distribution of vaccines creates a bottleneck, depriving poorer nations of a vaccine supply. In fact, many nations on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder may not achieve access to immunisation until 2024 (Duke University Global Health Innovation Centre).

Quite rightly, Andrea Taylor, of the Duke University Global Health Innovation Centre – which published a report sparking discussion on Vaccine Nationalism – asserted “the issue of nations acting in their own self interest, which is understandable in practical terms, but leaves very little resources for low and middle income countries.” More so, Dr John Nkengasongl, Director of Africa Centre of Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), denounced the deeply politicised distribution as an issue of morality, calling on developed nations to show a spirit of global compassion and solidarity, whilst urging the UN to put forward a session to avoid a “North-South distrust in respect to the vaccine.” Both commentators highlight the core of the bitter trajectory taken by the global political landscape over the past half decade, in the pivoting of global hegemony from the West to the Far East and in the subsequent rise of divisive and defensive populist sentiments in the West.

The issue is rooted in the systematic lack of necessary resources to store and therefore deliver the vaccines (cold storage facilities), the energy infrastructure to support the facilities, the security to ensure safety, and so on. Hence, vaccine provision and possession on the international scale functions as an instrument of power and status, reasserting the economic barriers of the Global North and the Global South. 

Furthermore the central two-pronged strategy at play by the developed nations in the arena of vaccine distribution presents its own criticisms. Despite funding COVAX (a UN scheme which ensures equal access to successful vaccine candidates for health and security workers, and subsequently for a minimum of 20% of the population), wealthy developed nations are simultaneously striking under-the-table deals with vaccine companies, limiting the available supply for those nations with a tighter budget. 

A double-whammy for the developing nations creates ample opportunity for Vaccine Diplomacy, a term coined by Foreign Policy, and eagerly practiced by China, ardent on repairing its tarnished image following lax food safety laws which eased the spread of the virus. For example, Kenya has already opted for China’s vaccination programme over COVAX, citing quicker delivery, efficiency and cost-effectiveness, granting China a stamp of legitimacy and a foot in the door to the continent’s population, which is set to double by 2050. 

Clearly, intertwined nationalistic sentiments into vaccine distribution provide the avenues for wider divergences in global health inequalities, an array of pathways for Chinese goodwill and vaccine diplomacy, presented in the ultimate project of a Chinese ‘Health Silk Road’.