Vaccine hoarding by West threatens global democracy

Autocratic regimes grow in soft power as they help vulnerable nations West ignores

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine: Its distributrion as aid is part of the  expansion of influence by authoritarian states which rule by crushing internal dissent and denying basic freedoms.

Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine: Its distributrion as aid is part of the expansion of influence by authoritarian states which rule by crushing internal dissent and denying basic freedoms.

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Ireland’s Covid vaccine rollout continues apace, with 80 per cent of adults expected to have received their first dose by the beginning of July. In common with other western democratic states, Ireland’s vaccination efforts are rapidly progressing to include younger and less vulnerable people.

Attention has turned to the timeline for reopening society and the prospects of international travel later in the summer. Meanwhile, about 125 countries, mostly in the developing world, are struggling to obtain vaccines and some have not yet received a single dose. In those states we see healthcare workers, the elderly and other at-risk groups becoming sick and losing their lives at a prodigious rate.

The director general of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has described global vaccine distribution as being characterised by a “scandalous inequity”. Noting that more than three-quarters of the world’s vaccines have been administered in only 10 countries, Tedros stated starkly that “a small group of countries that make and buy the majority of the world’s vaccines control the fate of the rest of the world”.

China was in a ready position to use its existing channels of influence – its Belt and Road Initiative – to arrange the export of millions of doses

The low rate of vaccination, in particular across Africa, constitutes a grave threat to western countries , as the virus continues to mutate and more virulent strains emerge, which may be impervious to existing vaccines.

The hoarding of vaccines by the wealthiest democratic countries is not only short-sighted from the point of view of their own public health and economic interests, however. As the West stockpiles its vaccines and resources, poorer countries are looking elsewhere for aid.

This offers a golden opportunity for authoritarian regimes like China to target strategic states, expanding their influence and soft power through vaccine diplomacy. China’s Sinopharm vaccine last month received emergency approval from the WHO and had already been approved by health regulators in a number of countries across Africa, Latin America and Asia.

China’s assistance

Wealthy democracies including the US and EU have dragged their feet on responding to the plight of poorer countries; only in the past few weeks has the US indicated support for a global patent waiver on Covid vaccines and confirmed that it will donate a meaningful supply of vaccines to Covax, the WHO-backed programme aimed at accelerating access to Covid vaccines in developing countries, by the end of this month.

China, on the other hand, has been quick off the mark in offering international assistance.

While there may not be explicit conditions attached to China’s offers of assistance, it is not difficult to see how they may be leveraged to further its foreign policy goals and enhance its global standing.

China was in a ready position to use its existing channels of influence – its Belt and Road Initiative – to arrange the export of millions of doses; recent research by Think Global Health notes that all but two of the 65 countries to which China has promised vaccines under its “Health Silk Road” initiative are Belt and Road Initiative participants. This allows China to combine its vaccine diplomacy with existing and emerging projects in its national interest – thus expanding its soft power.

China is not the only authoritarian regime to seize the opportunity to act where western democracies have deferred. Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine has recently been found to have 92 per cent efficacy and has been declared safe and effective in a study published in the Lancet; it is already being administered in Argentina, Venezuela, Iran and even Hungary, despite the fact that it has not yet been authorised in the EU.

This should be a worrying prospect for western liberal democracies, involving as it does a potential disruption to the international order through the expansion of influence by authoritarian states which rule by crushing internal dissent and denying basic freedoms that democratic states treat as sacred.

Economics and morals

It is not too late to take action. The G7 summit is an opportunity for the world’s wealthiest countries to agree to ensure vaccine access for the countries that need it most, in particular sub-Saharan Africa, through measures such as patent waivers and donation of vaccines to Covax.

There is not only an economic imperative to take effective action, in avoiding the costs of future lockdown due to new virus strains, but a moral, ethical and indeed strategic necessity.

Ireland may not be a mass producer of vaccines or a world superpower, but it has its own part to play in speaking up in favour of vaccine equity. With a seat on the UN Security Council, we have a strong international voice at present and it is incumbent upon us to use it.

If the ongoing disarray in our health system caused by Russian hackers has taught us anything, it is that events in faraway places can have a deadly effect at home. If western democracies continue to vaccinate the young and healthy, while allowing the virus to rage in the world’s poorer countries, we not only demonstrate a great moral failure.

We become complicit in allowing autocratic regimes with no regard for basic human rights and freedoms to establish themselves as the world leaders in ending the Covid crisis and mapping the way forward. If the West continues to look inward, we may see these chickens coming home to roost sooner rather than later.

Seána Glennon is a PhD candidate at the Sutherland School of Law at UCD and chief outreach officer at UCD’s Centre for Constitutional Studies

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