January2021

Covid: winning the cure

At first glance, a global pandemic might be viewed as a straightforward apolitical challenge, a shared international crisis that encourages unity of purpose.

At one level that is the case. Information needs to be shared, hospitals working, equipment distributed and so on.

With the vaccine, however, the stakes are raised, bringing to the fore hard issues about morality, geopolitical tensions and the continuing gap between rich and poor.

The vaccine is seen as the path towards ending the pandemic. Its manufacture and distribution and the global recovery that follows will need international cooperation which, as the crisis has shown, does not presently exist.

Indeed, rather than bring the world together, the pandemic has exposed flaws within populism and great power conflict that have been gathering pace in recent years, to such an extent that Pope Francis, in his Christmas message, urged that the vaccine to be made available to all.

‘We cannot allow the various forms of nationalism closed in on themselves to prevent us from living as the truly human family that we are,’ Francis said. ‘Nor can we allow the virus of radical individualism to get the better of us and make us indifferent to the suffering of other brothers and sisters.’

In the eyes of many, rich countries have adopted a hoarding psychology by bulk ordering vaccine doses with little thought for those who cannot afford them.

Yet as the head of the World Health Organisation, Tedros Adhanom, warns, ‘No one is safe until everyone is.’ In short, the coronavirus is both a divider and a leveller.

A glaring example came from the United Kingdom, the first country to approve a vaccine that had been tested in a large clinical trial.

Britain got there before anyone else because it was ‘a much better country’, boasted the education secretary Gavin Williamson, even though the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had been made Germany.  Health secretary Matt Hancock incorrectly stated the speedy regulatory approval was because Britain had left the European Union.

Both politicians openly politicised a global crisis, spinning national pride for their domestic audience. There was little or no mention about wider international concerns. If such behaviour continues, the pandemic and its cure will become part and parcel of geopolitical leverage and balances of power.

This should be avoided.. 

As vaccines were being approved and distribution lines set up, there has been little mention of the WHO’s COVAX initiative which argues that it is the ‘only true global solution’ and ‘the only effort to ensure that people in all corners of the world will get access to vaccines, regardless of their wealth’.

It is a laudable vision and practical. But alongside it, the United States and wealthier European countries are emphasising the locking down of supplies for their own citizens while, at the same time, opposing a World Trade Organisation initiative for a waiver on coronavirus patents.  This would allow generic vaccines to be made at costs affordable to the poorest societies.

Economist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Muhammad Yunus is scathing about the position of the wealthy West. ‘They can look only within their own borders and put the financial interests of their pharmaceutical companies ahead of global health,’ he argues. ‘Or they can renounce vaccine nationalism and stand in solidarity with the world’s most vulnerable people.’

Yunus’ argument resonates strongly through the developing world but richer nations, where many of the big pharma companies are based, offer credible counter-arguments.  Without patent protection, they argue, what incentive would they have to research and develop new drugs, whether for coronavirus, HIV Aids or malaria?

While the pandemic crisis was born outside of traditional political parameters, it has very quickly fallen into step with power rivalries of the day, whether Donald Trump and his ‘China Virus’ rhetoric or ongoing disputes between global and regional institutions about fairness and distribution.

China has been at an advantage because it locked down ruthlessly and stabilised the pandemic within its borders, thus giving itself the bandwidth to spread influence further afield.

Only sparse data has been published on China’s vaccine research and safety, nothing at the level that is accepted by US and European regulators. Nevertheless, tests have been carried out on five different Chinese vaccines in at least 18 countries around the world.

Beijing is implementing vaccine diplomacy in a similar way that it rolled out its Belt and Road Initiative, offering finance for poorer nations to pay for vaccine programmes, amid familiar warnings about debt traps and political manipulation.

Will China’s vaccine success in Southeast Asia silence voices against its South China Sea claims? Will Turkey’s securing of 50 million doses from the Chinese company Sinovac nudge it into staying quiet on the Uighur Muslim camps in Xinjiang?  What can we read into the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain being the first governments to approve a Chinese-made vaccine?

Far less discussed is the role of India which, little known to many, has the largest vaccine manufacturing capacity in the world, responsible for 60 per cent of global production.

With much of its manufacturing under license from the Western pharmaceutical industry, India does not need to follow powers like Russia and China with their vaccine nationalism. It is, though, giving priority to ensuring that its closest neighbours, Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Bhutan, are covered under an Indian vaccine security umbrella.

We have now passed the early stages of the pandemic where mistakes were inevitable. In conflict terms, we would now be at the stage of winning the peace. Here, it is about winning the cure.

How the vaccine is shared, what political leverage is used, the levels of fairness, exploitation, bullying, selfishness, profiteering and generosity will all go into the mix of how political leaders and governments are remembered in their handling of this crisis