Against Vaccine Nationalism

By Eric Timmons

I care as much for the life of a person in Lagos as I do for a person in La Crosse. 

If a person in La Crosse dies, I may feel a greater emotional impact, due to proximity and the possibility they moved within my orbit. But the person in Lagos, even though they exist far outside my circle, is just as important. This means I value Nigerian lives as much as American ones, or Brazilian lives as much as Belgian lives. It means that if a policy decision had to be made that would save 10 Nigerian lives, at the expense of five American lives, I would pick the policy that saved 10 Nigerian lives. 

This is the basis of my belief in internationalism, as opposed to nationalism. None of this should be radical. After all, humans are humans, no matter where they had the luck or misfortune to be born. And yet, I fear that at this moment this is a radical view. Look, for example, at the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines across the globe. Rich nations are hoarding doses, at the expense of poorer countries, which makes no sense at all.  As those wealthy countries, including the U.S., rushed to stockpile vaccine, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, has warned that we are approaching a moral failure of catastrophic dimensions.

“Vaccine nationalism hurts us all and is self-defeating,” he said. “Remember, ending this pandemic is one of humanities great races, and whether we like it or not, we will win or lose this race together.” 

The point is that in the end, no one nation can be truly free from the pandemic, until all are. The solution is more cooperation between nations, addressing the pandemic based on need, not nationality. Yet the U.S., the European Union, Canada and the U.K. have moved to put purchase agreements in place to buy more vaccine than they need. Aside from being immoral, this drives up prices for other nations. Tedros has warned that the cost “of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”

I would argue that after rich nations have vaccinated their most vulnerable people, instead of immediately moving to vaccinate their less vulnerable populations, they should send vaccine to less wealthy countries who have not been able to secure doses for people who need protection the most. This would require the kind of political courage we are unlikely to see, especially in a period of rising nationalism, but it would be the morally correct thing to do. 

There is hope in the shape of the COVAX program, a global vaccination project organized by the World Health Organization (WHO) with funding from rich nations, but not enough funding. This is an area where dumping Trump appears to have made a real difference, as upon inauguration Biden moved swiftly to join COVAX and rejoin the WHO, an imperfect but vital organization Trump had foolishly pulled the U.S. out of. 

International cooperation of the kind represented by COVAX is the way to defeat the pandemic. This kind of global coordination is also the only way to truly mitigate the impact of climate change. On both fronts, nationalism is a dead end.  Further evidence of this can be seen in Europe, where the European Union and the U.K., fresh from its exit from that group of nations, are squabbling over vaccine distribution, instead of cooperating.

“Science is succeeding, and solidarity is failing,” Robert Yates, the director of the global health program at Chatham House, a London-based policy institute, told the New York Times this week. “The world’s political leaders are letting down the scientists, and everyone else.”

The big pharma companies producing vaccines have also and unsurprisingly been behaving badly, rushing to get regulatory approval in the countries from which they can extract the greatest profits, rather than seeking global approval from the WHO. It’s worth noting here that long-term, federally-funded research created the backbone of the vaccines that have been approved in the U.S. to date, rather than corporate ingenuity.

“This is the people’s vaccine,” Peter Maybarduk, director of Public Citizen’s Access to Medicines program told Scientific American recently. “Federal scientists helped invent it and taxpayers are funding its development…It should belong to humanity.”

In the end, other parts of the world may not need as many doses of the vaccines developed in Europe and the U.S. as currently projected. Cuba and Vietnam are among the nations that are working to develop their own vaccines that are showing promise in trials. We must hope those vaccines succeed and can be distributed widely. We should urge our government to cast aside petty nationalism and help other countries as much as we can. Solidarity starts at home, but should never be stopped by borders. 

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