A health worker shows a vial of Covishield, AstraZeneca-Oxford’s COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine made by local partner Serum Institute of India, at Patan Hospital near Kathmandu on Wednesday. AFP
Here’s a story. Two men have been walking for days in search of food and water after surviving a plane crash in a desert. The stronger of the two walks in front and comes across an oasis where he finds edible plants and water to drink. He fills his stomach and quenches his thirst. The weaker man who reaches the oasis a day later and asks his friend to share the food with him. But the stronger man, thinking that he will have to survive on this diet for days and weeks until a search party finds him, refuses to share the plant and chases his companion away.
To look at it from a more humane point of view, we are not humans if we fill our stomachs with the best of foods and hoard the surplus, while we watch the poor die of hunger. Similarly, in a pandemic situation, it is not humane, if the rich and powerful who gain access to a vaccine first, inoculate their populations first and hoard the vaccine, thus denying its early availability to the poor nations.
In our competitive world, most nations are jostling to become militarily and economically stronger and make the rivals weaker so that they could live in security, have a big voice in setting the world agenda and be better prepared to face challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The bottom line is that every nation is in pursuit of power. Security studies say that in a two-state model, to the extent one nation increases its security, to that extent the other nation’s security declines. Early access to vaccine certainly increases a nation’s ability to revive its economy well ahead of the nations which have not yet received the vaccine. If the vaccine is not shared among all nations equally and if it is used for power political gains, then the nations in pursuit of narrow-minded nationalistic agenda are no different from the wicked man in our story and are, in a sense, bio terrorists.
In a recent article headlined “Is the COVID-19 Vaccine a Potential Biological Weapon in Reverse?”, New York-based Sri Lankan-born journalist Thalif Deen asked whether the heavily-publicised COVID-19 vaccine was in danger of being weaponised. He posed this question in reference to millions of Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Reports say Israel, which has already vaccinated more than 40 percent of its population, is adopting a vaccination programme which the international human rights group Amnesty International describes as the institutionalised discrimination that defines the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestinians.
“The Israeli government must stop ignoring its international obligations as an occupying power and immediately act to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines were equally and fairly provided to Palestinians,” the AI said.
During this week’s Davos World Economic Forum summit, it is heartening to note Saudi Arabia’s announcement that it would hold talks with vaccine producers to supply vaccines free to poor nations, including Yemen where it is fighting a war against the Houthi rebels. Addressing the same forum, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said wealthy countries should stop hoarding excess COVID-19 vaccines that they had ordered but did not immediately need.
Is the hoarding of the vaccine a power political tool aimed at getting a head start over rival powers? The undercurrents point to an attempt by big powers to return to the pre-COVID ‘wicked’ world order that made rich nations richer and poor nations poorer.
Due to the power struggle between nations, vaccine disputes have arisen even among allies. This is evident in the European Union’s allegation that vaccine maker AstraZeneca had failed to honour its deal to supply the vaccine to the Eurozone countries, while Britain continues to receive the Astra Zeneca vaccine.
Even as the EU countries’ vaccination programmes have been hampered by supply shortage, the United States’ new President Joe Biden has launched the ambitious programme of vaccinating 100 million people in the first hundred days of his presidency. The EU nations’ lack of progress in vaccinating their citizens is a cause for concern for the EU leadership.
In South Asia, India’s act of sending vaccine gifts to its less privileged neighbours, although praiseworthy, is loaded with geopolitical objectives. Under its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy, India has already sent millions of doses of its locally produced vaccine to the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Bangladesh and key Indian Ocean partners Mauritius and Seychelles. The priority of politics over humanity is seen in the fact that India has left out Pakistan from its vaccine diplomacy. India reaching out to these selected countries with its vaccine diplomacy dubbed Vaccine Maithri or Compassion could be a well calculated strategic move aimed at improving its soft power in the neighbourhood vis-à-vis China.
One wonders whether the delay in sending the vaccine gift to Sri Lanka is also geopolitics connected to the ongoing dispute over the Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal, though officially the delay was attributed to the bureaucratic process involving regulatory approvals. The first stock of 500,000 doses of the Indian vaccine, however, arrived yesterday. It was too good to be a coincidence that hard on the heels of Sri Lankan government’s Wednesday announcement of the arrival of the Indian vaccine, the Chinese embassy announced that Beijing would donate 300,000 doses of the Chinese vaccine to Sri Lanka.
New cold war politics in South Asia apart, these donations cover less than 0.2 percent of Sri Lanka’s vaccine requirement. Under the World Health Organisation’s COVAX initiative, Sri Lanka is expected to cover 20 percent of its requirement. The balance 79.8 percent of the vaccine requirement will have to be bought from vaccine producers.
Just as there is geopolitics and power politics in vaccine donations, distributions and hoarding, we must not forget that there is also profit in the vaccine business. The ideal vaccine programme should have been a joint effort under the aegis of the United Nations with member-states, putting aside their political rivalries and ulterior motives, producing enough doses to offer every nation at the same time, covering each nation’s full vaccine requirement under a theme ‘We live together or suffer together.’
The inspiration for such a move could have come from the story of Edward Jenner, the Gloucestershire village physician who discovered the world’s first vaccine in 1796. He could have become rich by his trailblazing smallpox vaccine discovery. But he did not seek to profit from his vaccine.
He kept his lab, which later came to be known as the Temple of Vaccine, open for the poor to walk in and get vaccinated. In one of his works, his description of the epidemiological origins of smallpox may be also relevant to COVID-19. He said: ‘The deviation of man from the state in which he was originally placed by Nature seems to have proved to him a prolific source of diseases. From the love of splendour, from the indulgences of luxury, and from his fondness for amusement, he has familiarised himself with a great number of animals, which may not originally have been intended for his associates.’
If Jenner had been with us today, he would be working hard to find a vaccine against human greed that pushes some people to make vulgar profits and indulge in selfish politics at the cost of human misery.