Vaccine diplomacy likely to prolong pandemic suffering
Vaccines are arguably the most sought-after currency in the world right now. Huge stockpiles provide those governments that control them the supposed reassurance of being able to vaccinate and placate their weary and frustrated populations. But many have also seen additional side benefits, including deploying doses for soft power purposes. They can also be used for political gain, to achieve goals that perhaps normal diplomacy cannot.
Many richer states have accumulated huge coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine supplies, more than enough for their own populations, creating an enormous surplus. At the same time, poorer countries await even their first meager supplies. Of the hoarding states, some might credit their leaderships with far-sightedness, saying that they invested in the vaccine supply chain while others were hesitant. The UK, Israel and the US lead this vanguard, whereas the EU was arguably ponderous and more labored in developing its vaccine strategy.
The greatest flaw in this approach is that defeating the virus requires it to be defeated everywhere. An entire population can be vaccinated, but is it then truly safe? The virus will spread and, more importantly, mutate in unvaccinated populations elsewhere, risking undermining the effectiveness of the groundbreaking vaccines.
The Israeli case is highly illustrative of this short-termist approach. Tel Aviv has refused to vaccinate occupied Palestinians under its control, even though it is required to do so by international law. While about half of the 9 million Israelis can celebrate having their first jab, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have no idea if and when they too will get protected. The virus will continue to infect these areas and new variants will find plenty of hosts.
But what makes this approach so short-sighted is that Palestinians and Israelis share the same geography, even if most Israelis do not see Palestinians any more, as they are shut away behind a protective shell of walls and checkpoints. Palestinians work inside Israel, either legally crossing the Green Line every day if they have a permit, in illegal Israeli settlements, or illegally slipping through the many gaps in Israel’s wall. The Israeli construction sector is hugely dependent on Palestinian labor, which is almost certainly why the authorities turn a blind eye even during a pandemic.
So what did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu choose to do with Israel’s excess vaccines? A sound approach would have been to make the grand neighborly gesture of vaccinating the Palestinians and hoovering up all the positive public relations for doing so, while at the same time acting in the best interests of his countrymen, who still see huge numbers of COVID-19 cases every day. Let us be clear, sending a measly 2,000 doses to the Palestinians does not count.
No, Netanyahu immediately dropped any pretense of treating the pandemic as a common threat to humanity and instead offered to provide certain carefully-chosen states with Israel’s excess vaccines. Which states? They included the Czech Republic, Guatemala, Honduras and Hungary, all of which Netanyahu wanted to reward for their pro-Israel stances, not least over Jerusalem. It was not done on the basis of humanitarian need or the immediate interests of his people.
There is also the story of how Israel reportedly paid Russia $1.2 million for Sputnik V vaccines for the Syrian regime as part of a prisoner exchange deal. If true, these vaccines will almost certainly not be shared equitably among Syrians, or even given to front-line medical staff, but will instead be used to reward loyalist cronies. Once again, the basis of need was not a priority.
Israel is not alone on this front. China, Russia and India all stand accused of cherry-picking the countries they support with vaccines. Some 50 countries, plus the African Union, which represents 55 nations, have made or been offered vaccine deals with India, China and Russia. China and India are competing for influence in their shared neighborhood, dishing out spare vaccines to selected neighbors. New Delhi is able to use its status as the world’s largest vaccine producer in this regard.
Chinese and Russian vaccines are also being offered across South America, as they try to gain influence in America’s backyard. Chains of influence are established. Russia and China have, for example, both provided Serbia with their own vaccines. Serbia, having acquired a surplus and overseen the fastest rate of vaccination on mainland Europe, is now giving some to North Macedonia and possibly to Montenegro and Republika Srpska (part of Bosnia and Herzegovina) too. And President Vladimir Putin wasted little time in trying to lure Hungary even closer to Russia’s orbit by offering vaccines to Budapest to make up for the lamentably slow rollout in the EU.
That the likes of Russia and China can do this is, in no small part, due to the vaccine hoarding of Western states. As they hoard, other powers are filling in the gaps and increasing their influence. The Covax mechanism is admirable as far as it goes. It aims to supply vaccines to 3 percent of the most vulnerable people in 145 lower to middle-income countries. But, as the World Health Organization has warned, the vaccine hoarding by rich countries means Covax has the funds but no vaccine doses to buy. The Biden administration has now committed $4 billion to Covax and the UK £548 million ($764 million), but others must contribute. The mechanism will have to guard against abuses and ensure it is the front-line workers and the most vulnerable that get the jabs.
The greatest flaw in this approach is that defeating the virus requires it to be defeated everywhere.
The lack of a sound global strategy to handle the pandemic has been evident from the outset. Countries have typically acted on their own, failed to collaborate effectively, and now are cloaking themselves in the dangerous garb of vaccine nationalism. Could there not have been an agreement on prioritizing certain key categories, such as front-line health workers, to prevent healthcare systems collapsing?
Those that hoard and those that abuse the vaccine for their own political ends are guilty of violating the core humanitarian principle of helping those most in need regardless of politics and nationality. It jeopardizes our chances of defeating the virus and prolongs the pandemic. Maybe it is too late to sort this out for this pandemic, but for future occasions a more robust and fairer system would be more effective.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech