The end of a dark year provided a slight glimmer of hope, as the United States, United Kingdom and the European Union approved the world’s first COVID-19 vaccine. Since then, countries have rapidly followed suit in authorizing the use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. It is easy to hail this development as the light at the end of the tunnel. However, we must proceed with caution; this pandemic is not over, and it will stay with us for the foreseeable future.
The initial adrenaline rush brought by the procurement of effective vaccines has come to a crashing halt, as the vaccine rollout has been underwhelmingly slow globally. Despite long touted claims of procuring enough vaccines, the Trump administration’s rollout of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been riddled with inefficiencies. A gross unavailability of doses, combined with a lack of administrative support, has hampered distribution. This mess points to a lack of preparedness not just in the U.S., but worldwide, for a historic undertaking of vaccinating entire populations in a streamlined and rapid manner.
There is, however, another dangerous phenomenon at play: vaccine nationalism. There has been a common rhetoric among world leaders in labeling the fight against COVID-19 as a “war,” to invoke a sense of duty and patriotism among citizens to follow public health guidelines. And, with war, comes heightened nationalism, manifesting itself in the hoarding of vaccines.
In particular, rich countries have been accused of purchasing more vaccines than necessary; in many cases, even purchasing enough to vaccinate their entire populations several times. This does not bode well for the global health initiative, as it is likely to prolong the pandemic by withholding developing countries’ access to the vaccines. These inequities are more
prevalent among the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Priced at around $40 and $10-50 for a dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, respectively, these vaccines are unaffordable for a majority of the world population living in developing countries. Thus, the entire developing world currently relies on the availability of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, priced at a much lower $3 per dose.
Amid this, rich countries have been able to leverage their financial power to purchase excess vaccines, prompting the World Health Organization to issue a warning against “cutting the queue.” Most developing countries also lack the health infrastructure and economic conditions necessary to weather the storm of rising COVID-19 cases and prolonged lockdowns, which makes them doubly vulnerable.
If the past year has taught us anything, it’s that countries worldwide are so interconnected and interdependent that isolationism is not a long-term solution. Without global cooperation, it will be nearly impossible for any country to eradicate COVID-19 to return to normalcy. The sooner this realization is accepted, the faster we can begin rounding the corner. It is imperative for us to remain cautious and continue following safety measures. Most experts predict it will take months before the vaccine is even available for the general public, and herd immunity may only be achieved by 2022, highlighting that there is still a great importance on following the safety guidelines issued by health authorities.
More importantly, the slow vaccine rollout also indicates the necessity of international scientific and epidemiological cooperation during this crucial time. Without helping one another, each country’s efforts will be in vain, as the movement of goods and people will only circulate and mutate the virus. Vaccine nationalism and the race to obtain excess doses is only going to prolong the pandemic by preventing people who need the vaccine from accessing it. Now more than ever, we must push our governments to come together and think for the collective good of humanity, so that we can return to normalcy as soon as possible while saving as many lives as we can.
Aayush Gupta (22B) is from Singapore.
Global With Gupta is a column dedicated to global politics and international relations.