As wealthy nations rush to vaccinate their populations, many developing countries face desperately low supply levels of Covid-19 vaccines. Africa, which accounts for 16.7% of the world’s population, has received only 1% of the total vaccine doses administered globally. The power asymmetry between developed and developing countries has once again manifested itself as nations such as Canada and the USA race ahead with their vaccination programs while stockpiling millions of doses of vaccines.
Vaccine diplomacy – sinister or scrupulous?
A new scramble by the great powers to deliver vaccine donations to poorer counties to further national interests is underway. In May, World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus accused some countries of donating Covid-19 vaccines in exchange for access to business dealings or to garner support from developing countries in geopolitical competition — a practice broadly referred to as vaccine diplomacy. He expounded: “For to end this pandemic, the only choice we have is co-operation. Vaccine diplomacy is not co-operation. It’s actually geopolitical maneuvering…it’s clear and clean co-operation that can help us to end this pandemic.”
In its worst form, donor countries employ vaccine diplomacy to buy off vulnerable countries that are desperately in need of vaccines. It manifests itself in countries making donations in exchange for preferential treatment in trade and investment transactions that would not have otherwise been granted. For instance, China and Russia have been accused of using vaccine donations to gain special access to markets in African countries with a short supply of vaccines. This form of vaccine diplomacy exploits the vulnerability and desperation of less-developed countries as they face mounting public pressure to ensure faster vaccine rollouts.
Vaccine donations can also be used to foster mutual support among national governments and peoples, however. For example, Denmark recently donated 358,000 doses to Kenya, joining India, which in March donated 100,000 doses to the country. Denmark and India’s donations constitute ethical vaccine diplomacy that advances shared responsibility and global solidarity in the fight against Covid-19. Another good example is the COVAX facility, through which several African countries have received their first batches of vaccines — one of the outcomes of multi-lateral vaccine diplomacy that fosters collaboration for the development and production of and equitable access to Covid-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. The ongoing efforts to waive the intellectual property rights for Covid-19 vaccines that may help to bridge the dangerous vaccine equity gap between richer and poorer nations provide another positive example of vaccine diplomacy.
In the wake of mounting diplomatic pressure, the G7 summit pledged 1 billion vaccine donations to developing countries, including the USA’s commitment to donate 500 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine. The EU also pledged to donate 100 million jabs. In light of the USA’s earlier decision to support Covid vaccine patent waivers, the Biden administration’s actions are exemplary.
Addressing vaccine inequity
Vaccine inequity mainly manifests in the slower pace of vaccination rollouts and the inadequacy of the supply of jabs in developing countries compared to developed nations — with the quality of vaccines fast becoming another determinant, as is the type of vaccine. As developed countries inoculate their nationals with BioNTech, Moderna, and Pfizer vaccines, which are more effective at reducing onward transmission, the EU has stopped ordering AstraZeneca shots.
Essentially, the faster and broader the pace of rollouts, and the better the quality of vaccines, the slower the pandemic will spread, and the sooner populations will reach herd immunity. The progress of vaccine rollouts in developing countries will shape, steer, prevent, or contain mobility. A fast pace will facilitate the mobility of people, goods, services, and capital — and speedier economic recovery and rehabilitation.
Vaccine diplomacy impacts domestic politics
While vaccine donation through multi-lateral or bilateral mechanisms is not new, the associated governance and ethics are evidently at a crossroads. The far-reaching implications of vaccine inequity are not limited to saving lives. In addition to influencing foreign relations and geopolitical competition, vaccine diplomacy can also affect domestic politics. It may increase competition between various national institutions (at national and regional levels) over mandates related to health, pandemics, and pharmaceuticals. Ministerial portfolios that were historically least interested in pandemics, such as ministries of foreign affairs, offices of presidents or prime ministers, and ministers of finance, are now competing for influence with ministries of health. This contributes to the present scarce resource allocation for pandemics and vaccines, institutional inadequacies, and the resultant slow rollout of vaccines.
What is more, facilitation of mobility is unthinkable without rapid policy decisions and strong political leadership at all levels. Vaccine nationalism, meagre resources allocated to health sectors, and governance and institutional inadequacies remain the biggest hurdles for efficient vaccination campaigns. Complementary transboundary vaccine rollout initiatives for mobile populations in hotspots and border areas could also help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Effective rollouts require proximity, local expertise, and legitimacy to tailor vaccine prioritization to local contexts.
Global cooperation is key to containing Covid-19
With the increasing impacts of vaccine donations, now more than ever ethics, solidarity, and multilateralism need to be high on the agendas of global, regional, and national deliberations. Weaponizing vaccine donations to serve narrow national interests will only delay vaccine rollouts and incur further human and economic costs in addition to the millions of deaths and possible USD 9.2 trillion loss to the global economy. The G20 summit needs to recommit to the COVAX initiative and ensure ethical vaccine donations.
To be safe, the world needs 11 billion doses. G7 countries have pledged 870 million vaccine doses in 2021 and 2022, but their current pledges are too late and too few to arrest the spread of the virus effectively. The members of the G7 and G20 need to scale up their commitment to avail more vaccines, backed by concrete actions that match the demands on the ground. In this regard, they need to support more robust localized vaccine distribution and rollout programs. Furthermore, for sustainable supply of adequate quantities of high-quality vaccines, G20 members need to reach universal consensus on waiving patent rights.