Home >Opinion >Views >Vaccine nationalism could derail global recovery

These times are difficult. On the one hand, the coronavirus is continuing to bare its murderous claws, and on the other, the entire medical system is proving to be useless. The lack of oxygen is costing people their lives, ventilators are not functioning at full capacity and beds are scarce in hospitals. Everyone knew that the second covid wave was around the corner, but the government’s attention was somewhere else. Between the clutches of death, a question arises: when will people get the vaccines? With great disappointment, we have to break it to you that you may have to wait twice as long for it. The US has seized up the material required to make the vaccine.

This is the same US that was calling the world a global village up till quite recently. It was also supported by other rich countries. This vaccine nationalism is dangerous for developing countries. It may sound strange today, but it’s true that a decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, people would protest now and then, but the aim was to just acquire cheap labour from developing countries. When labour got expensive in Europe and the US, multinational companies in the West turned mainly to China. The world’s most populated country was desperate to get out of poverty. Under the leadership of the US, when various European countries proposed to set up their factories in China, despite the leftist rule, it welcomed the idea wholeheartedly. This coming together of communism and capitalism was astounding.

Today, China has become a direct competitor to the US. Experts viewing this feud had started calling this the beginning of the second Cold War. Before this could happen, the Wuhan-originated virus shook the entire world. Right in front of our eyes, the coronavirus wreaked havoc on every continent. Business establishments were shut down, cross-border trading had to be stopped and socializing became rare. The long lockdown disintegrated globalization, which was called the lone saviour of half the world at the beginning of the century. The good people still assumed this disease shall soon be over, but due to their noble nature forgot that this changing world has no God.

The US and the UK booked a huge number of vaccines for themselves in a rush. According to the British Medical Journal, the US booked 800 million doses with six companies. Along with this deal, they had provisions for a billion more doses. If you don’t know, the population of the US is about 330 million. They have provisions for more vaccines than they need. Britain has done the same. It has made arrangements for five doses per citizen. This trend proved to be damaging for the poverty-stricken countries of Africa as well as our own developing country.

India’s population is said to be 1.35 billion, but that is an old figure. If we go by this data, to vaccinate 70% of the people, we will need as many doses as the US has made provisions for.

The vaccination is useful only when two doses are administered, but how is that possible? Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s active initiative had led two companies in India to start manufacturing vaccines months ago. The material required for the Serum Institute of India (SII) to manufacture this life-saving vaccine has been restricted by the US. SII CEO Aadar Poonawala has humbly requested US President Joe Biden to provide the same, but hasn’t received any answer yet. Superpowers like the US just know how to establish control. They stopped providing helpful aid years ago.

Hopefully, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Indian government will be able to put effective pressure. Meanwhile, Bharat Biotech has announced that it has increased manufacturing with help from the central government. This is a positive step, but specialists believe that it could take months to provide the required number of doses. Do we have the time?

It’s not just about the vaccine. Patients need oxygen, hospitals and ventilators. Last week, Modi addressed the nation and assured that this process has been given utmost priority. It would have been great if the western countries that benefit from cheap labour from our county could assist, but they are not willing to move the needle. Looking at this situation, WHO predicts that only 37 countries will be able to achieve the vaccination goal. We might have to wait until the end of 2022. If the 84 other poor countries reach this goal even by next year, it would be considered a win.

In these difficult times, we are seeking elevation in a tragedy. It is not just the poor and developing nations that will have to bear this loss. The International Chamber of Commerce has predicted that if developing nations do not receive the required doses of the vaccine, the global economy will have to bear losses of up to $9.2 trillion. Developed countries would also have lost a large proportion of their middle class. This is the same middle class that has been maintaining the richness of western countries with its hard work.

You will be surprised to know that it will cost only $25 billion to provide vaccines to poor countries. If the rich countries had helped, the looming danger could have been averted.

WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has rightly said that if poor and middle-income countries do not get the vaccines, it will be impossible to bring the global economy back on track because the virus would continue to kill people. That is why it is in the interest of all nations in the world to use the vaccine for the betterment of humanity.

We cannot disagree with the WHO chief’s statement: Priority to vaccinate some people in all countries rather than all people in some countries.

Do the world’s most powerful countries not understand such a simple thing?

Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan. The views expressed are personal.

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