The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to varied new, repurposed or newly common phrases. The most recent entry to the pandemic lexicon is perhaps “vaccine diplomacy”, with some international locations utilizing their jabs to strengthen regional ties and improve their very own energy and world standing.
In early February, half one million doses of the Chinese language Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Pakistan, earlier than quickly additionally reaching 13 different international locations together with Cambodia, Nepal, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe. The Chinese language ambassador to Pakistan declared it a “manifestation of our brotherhood”, a sentiment echoed by the Pakistani authorities. Russia has equally used its personal Sputnik V vaccine to win buddies and assist, offering entry to international locations as but unable to start out their very own vaccination programmes.
India has been donating provides of the AstraZeneca/Oxford jabs produced within the nation to regional neighbours together with Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal, bolstering not solely its repute as a provider of low cost and accessible vaccines to the worldwide south, but additionally difficult China’s efforts at regional dominance at a time of heightened tensions between the 2 international locations.
In the meantime, Israel has reportedly agreed to pay Russia to ship the Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine to the Syrian authorities as a part of a prisoner trade deal.
Vaccine diplomacy has additionally concerned efforts to undermine belief within the intentions and efficacy of rival powers. China and Russia have each been accused by governments in Europe and North America of state-backed disinformation campaigns looking for to undermine belief in vaccines produced in these areas. And Russia despatched provides of Sputnik V to Hungary, in a transfer seen by some as designed to undermine EU unity and credibility.
Europe and North America have been late to the sport in offering vaccines to poorer international locations and areas. Calls from leaders resembling France’s Emmanuel Macron to donate vaccines to poorer international locations, and pledges from the UK to donate surplus provides have solely emerged in latest days.
Strings hooked up?
Within the absence of offering vaccine provides to poorer international locations, some within the west sought to forged doubt on the credibility of Chinese language and Russian efforts, presenting them as cynical ploys for diplomatic benefit. Chances are you’ll be getting vaccines, they’ve been telling the world, however at what value in your obligations to Russia and China – whilst western international locations wrap their very own worldwide support in situations, usually involving aspirations for commerce offers.
The response to the virus has been embedded in world energy and diplomatic wrangles from the very begin – from the Trump administration referring to “the Chinese language virus” at each flip as a part of its wider political and financial struggles with China, to Chinese language efforts to make use of its personal success to reinforce the legitimacy of strict measures and curbs on political and social freedoms.
Preventing illness has in truth lengthy been used as a way for extending smooth energy and profitable buddies. Superpower rivalries for affect by way of the needle have typically even been constructive: the success of the smallpox eradication marketing campaign was partly fuelled by the rivalry between the Soviet Union and US. Responding to the Sars epidemic in 2002, China supplied help and assist to affected international locations to bolster its world energy standing, together with to Taiwan. This stands in stark distinction to its extra tense relationship with Taiwan on this newest epidemic.
Such help has tended to accrue essentially the most soft-power affect when support has been seen as neutral and free from bare self-interest. Earlier than being merged with the Overseas and Commonwealth Workplace, for instance, the repute of the UK’s former Division for Worldwide Growth (DfID) was partly enhanced by its legally enshrined give attention to poverty and its autonomous standing. The present spherical of vaccine diplomacy on all sides is neither.
The prospect of worldwide well being changing into a brand new area for world energy competitors and rivalry ought to fear us all. No matter advantages might have emerged from such rivalries prior to now, they did so by way of cooperative rivalry. The worldwide response to COVID-19 has to this point tended to be uncooperative and divisive, casting blame or looking for to unfold mistrust.
The complexities of worldwide well being, and the wants of the billions excluded from the advantages of vaccine science and innovation, demand a really world response. Whether or not responding to COVID-19 will result in a extra equal partnership for well being for all, or reinforce among the worst instincts displayed throughout the previous 12 months, will decide not solely the course of COVID-19, however the influence of the following epidemic to threaten world well being, and those that comply with that.
Michael Jennings is affiliated with the Fabian Society.