Vaccine Nationalism: Why the monopolization of vaccines delays the eradication of the Covid-19 pandemic

The International Day of Democracy is a time for the countries of the world to reflect on the universal principles of democracy that unite them. It is also a time for the world to renew its commitment towards upholding and attaining these principles. In this context, the Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the very foundations of democracy upon which most of the modern world today is built. No country has been left unscathed. Governments have had their commitment to democracy tested by a range of difficult challenges which include among others; delayed elections and restrictions curtailing basic democratic freedoms such as movement and assembly. Moreover, the pandemic has further widened the ever-increasing gap of inequality between countries in the global north and south.

“Globally, 5.5 billion vaccine doses have now been administered, but 80 percent have been administered in high- and upper-middle income countries. High-income countries have promised to donate more than 1 billion doses, but less than 15 percent of those doses have materialised. Manufacturers have promised to prioritize COVAX and low-income countries. We don’t want any more promises. We just want the vaccines.”  —  WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

In a recent public address, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus renewed his clarion call for the rich countries of the world to do more to address the global inequity in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. He stressed the need for countries in the global north to abandon “vaccine nationalism”, which acts as a barrier that prevents less affluent countries from accessing vital life-saving vaccines that could help reduce the mortality rate of the Covid-19 virus and bring the pandemic to a halt.

What is “Vaccine Nationalism” and why does it need to be addressed?

As the name suggests, vaccine nationalism is a term coined to describe the phenomenon whereby wealthy countries obtain high stocks of vaccines for their own populations, thereby reducing the global supply of vaccines. This phenomenon is especially detrimental to less affluent countries as they often lack the resources needed to purchase vaccines from the already limited global stock.

Democracy flourishes in an environment where people enjoy human rights without hindrance and restriction. A threat to the enjoyment of human rights is a threat to democracy. The UN has repeatedly underscored that at the core of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic is a battle to safeguard the universal enjoyment of human rights such as the right to life, the right to health and access to healthcare, and the freedom of movement, among others.

The economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic has been felt throughout the entire world. Many businesses and livelihoods have been destroyed by policy measures implemented globally to stem the spread of the virus. According to the World Bank, the economic and financial fallout resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic is much worse in poor countries than it is in rich ones. The impact of this fallout will not be limited to the borders of the affected countries, and will result in challenges to the global economic and political system, touching upon areas such as international security, immigration, health care, etc. This further reinforces the need for countries to work together to combat the pandemic, as opposed to doing so individually. These sentiments were also echoed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health during a webinar held by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute in July on Covid-19 vaccines:

“The gains and successes of rich countries will be short-lived if they are in isolation and not part of a broader commitment towards assisting everyone to survive this pandemic” Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng (UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health).

The sooner the Covid-19 pandemic is contained, the sooner the world can begin efforts to rebuild and recover. Just as with other pandemics that have occurred over the course of human history, the long-term ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic will continue to plague humanity for generations to come. People will have to learn to live with the reality of Covid-19 as a life-threatening disease. The nations of the world will have to grapple with the political, social, and economic pressures created by the pandemic. The extent and severity of these ramifications can be curtailed today if the countries of the world— especially those in the global north, reaffirm their commitment towards eradicating the pandemic by ensuring that the poorest, and most vulnerable members of the global community have access to vaccines.

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