Vaccine nationalism

As various Covid-19 vaccines continue to be rolled out in the Global North, Remi Joseph-Salisbury explores how nationalist vaccine programmes exacerbate global inequalities

April 13, 2021 · 4 min read
Source: ‘quapan’ (flickr; Creative Commons)

Despite tired refrains of ‘We’re all in this together’, the coronavirus pandemic has offered a stark reminder of the deep-seated inequalities that underpin our societies. In Britain, people of colour are still disproportionately contracting and dying from the virus. Reflecting historical patterns, and exacerbated by enhanced police powers, people of colour have also been massively over-policed during the pandemic. They have been hit disproportionately hard in terms of job losses, too. According to the TUC, ‘BAME’ workers lost jobs at 26 times the rate of white workers during September-December 2020. As impacts of the pandemic continue to unfold, there should be no doubt that communities of colour and other marginalised groups will continue to be disproportionately affected.

While paying attention to domestic issues, we must also examine the global picture. There, it is even more clear that we are not all in this together. Symbolic and symptomatic of resurgent nationalism, Britain and other over-developed nations have boasted of their ability to secure and roll out vaccines quickly, with little regard for other nations. Bulk-buying and pursuit of advance market commitments have seen vaccines monopolised by richer nations.

In January, Duke University’s Global Health Institute found that 60 per cent of vaccines were held by high-income countries, home to only 16 per cent of the global population. While tens of millions of vaccines had been administered in those countries, World Health Organisation head Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus revealed that just 25 doses had been distributed in one unnamed lowest-income nation. In Israel, meanwhile, a widely-celebrated vaccination programme has purposefully omitted Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, providing another illustration of how long-standing injustices are finding new articulation during the pandemic.

Without a radical change of direction, experts estimate that it will take years for poorer countries to obtain enough vaccines to reach herd immunity. The WHO has warned that refusals to share vaccines internationally has put the world ‘on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure’. The chair of South Africa’s coronavirus advisory panel called supply hoarding ‘unconscionable’.

One key attempt to redress the global injustice is COVAX, an initiative led by the Vaccine Alliance, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and the WHO. This expressly aims to increase production and promote fair access to vaccines. COVAX appears to be moving slowly, however. Its task is being made all the more difficult, according to the WHO, by ‘countries and companies [that] continue to prioritise bilateral deals, going around COVAX, driving up prices and attempting to jump to the front of the queue’.

Such greed and selfishness is reminiscent of that which propelled centuries of imperial extraction and plunder, spurred on now by the imperatives of neoliberal capitalism. ‘Vaccine nationalism’ is a reinforcement of longstanding colonial-rooted global inequalities.

These events are troubling but not surprising. The colonial relations that repeatedly privilege richer countries, primarily located in the global north, are so expected that they are taken for granted as the unquestioned norm. In the midst of a pandemic, it is alarming how passively we are accepting endemic global inequalities. While we remain desperate for our friends and families to be vaccinated, if our politics are to be internationalist we must grapple seriously with the implications of nationalist vaccine programmes pursued by Britain and the rest of the overdeveloped world.

Remi Joseph-Salisbury is a Presidential Fellow in Sociology at the University of Manchester and a Red Pepper columnist. This article originally appeared in issue #231, published March 2021

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