This part addresses the emerging debate called “vaccine nationalism”. Credit is due to Dr. Kelvin Ashindorbe of the Federal University of Agriculture, Abeokuta, Nigeria, who messaged me to ask if I had addressed the subject in this serial. Truly, I had adverted to the vaccine question in Parts 34 and 35, but there has not been any focused discussion of vaccine nationalism which ordinarily should be of interest to a political scientist. But his enquiry cleared my thought first along three trajectories that converged around causality. First is the role of the big pharmaceuticals. The second borders on coping with a novel health emergency. And the third is on the safety of alien vaccines. I shall come back to these points but first some conceptual reflection on nationalism.
In the field of politics, nationalism is a deep and complex concept. I shall therefore essay at simplification. In his entry in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought, edited by Tom Bottomore et al, V. G Kiernan, then Professor Emeritus at the University of Edinburgh defines nationalism as “a sentiment which professed to transcend social divisions, and blunted class consciousness.” In colonial Africa, we saw nationalism in practice by those forces that were opposed to colonial domination and rule. They rallied in two different categories identified by scholars as plaintive and radical. The former was prescriptive in their approach by expounding the pathway to independence, and the latter wanted the end of colonial rule by the adoption of the logic of colonial domination, namely, the use of force.
In this respect, we can put in perspective the various wars of liberation in our continent, especially in the last century. Europe and American that gave much intellectual content to the concept of nationalism had their nationalist struggles. References are often made to the “Eastern question”, the “Irish question”, and the like. Nationalism as an extension of the word “nation” derives from the notion of birth or nativity. In Latin, nationem refers more to units, clans, or family. The word has since morphed into a reference for territorially-based large groupings called nation. Nationalism is reified when it becomes a devotion to the nation with a clear political agenda. The Oxford Dictionary of Politics differentiates between particular nationalism and universal nationalism. The former reifies a particular nation or identity without reference to the other while the latter emphasizes the universal principles of the transcendence of national identity over class, religion, and humanity. This perspective aligns with Kiernan’s. Nations possess certain differentiating characteristics, namely linguistics, cultural and historical factors among others. The national oppression within plural societies is partly resolved by the acknowledgment of the principle of self-determination.
The notion of vaccine nationalism flows from the idea of ‘my nation first’ or ‘my country first’ or “my people first” in the rationing of the universal common. In the context of the global health emergency, the vaccine has become a universal common to save the entire humanity. Vaccine nationalism negates the required global solidarity to solve mankind’s common scourge. Abhishek De who expressed his views in the Indian Express captured the dynamics of vaccine nationalism According to him, Vaccine nationalism is “When a country manages to secure doses of vaccines for its own citizens or residents and prioritises its own domestic markets before they are made available in other countries; it is known as ‘vaccine nationalism’. This is done through pre-purchase agreements between a government and a vaccine manufacturer.” He further noted that in the second half of last year “Even before the end of final stage human trials or regulatory approval, several wealthier countries like Britain, France, Germany and the U.S. have entered into pre-purchase agreements with COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers, a development that has come to be known as ‘vaccine nationalism’. There are fears that such advance agreements will make the initial few vaccines unaffordable and inaccessible to everyone apart from the rich countries in a world of roughly 8 billion people.”
When the idea that a global problem desires a common solution is hobbled, in other words, when multilateralism is thrown overboard, the world is in trouble. As Owei Lakemfa rightly observed in his piece, “Vaccine nativity and naivety in a fractured world”, published in Vanguard of January 1, 2021, humanity, “withdrew into their shells following the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It was an instinctive abandonment of multilateralism. Not even the countries that claim to be religious entities, remembered that they are enjoined to be their brother’s keeper. Like Cain in the Holy Book, they would have retorted to any enquiry about their action: Am I my brother’s keeper?” Vaccine nationalism is nothing other than hoarding borne out of the illusion of being a great power and therefore independent in a patently interdependent world. Such an attitude in times of a global pandemic is anti-human.
However, vaccine nationalism is driven by factors, namely, the role of the pharmaceutical, coping measures, and safety, aforementioned. The big pharmaceuticals are after profits in ways that reinforce vaccine nationalism. The realisation factor would drive them to those who have the money. Vaccine nationalism is also goaded by the widespread nature of the COVID-19. Certainly, there would be desperation on the part of a country that loses 4000 souls in a day to hoard vaccines if that is the only solution. Also, the disease being novel, every country has been overstretched in relation to the health emergency. The uncertainty around the vaccine means that dependent countries will have to wait for a charitable gesture from producer nations who have right now prioritised their own people. A third aspect has to do with safety. Given the controversy surrounding COVID-19, it is perhaps safe for countries to produce the vaccine for their own population. China, Iran, and Cuba are doing just that. Health issues are to be securitised, after all.
But there is a consequence for a world without equitable distribution of vaccines. As Harry Kretchmer noted in his article in the World Economic Forum’s site titled, “Vaccine nationalism – and how it could affect us all,” “Vaccine nationalism – where countries push to get first access – could slow the global economic recovery, costing high-income countries $119 billion per year.” Besides, inequitable allocation of covid-19 vaccines could cost the global economy according to some statistics based on GPD up to $1.2 trillion yearly. The disparity in inoculation will continue to hobble the global economy since it would mean that the virus is not under control. The WHO, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and the Global Alliance for Vaccine and Immunisation’s (GAVI) COVAX facility mediating the needs of non-producing countries becomes significant.
Given the above discontents, the UN-mediated COVAX scheme is a welcome development. Adam Kamradt-Scott, an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, lent a voice in his piece titled, “Why ‘vaccine nationalism’ could doom plan for global access to a COVID-19 vaccine” published in The Conversation of September 7, 2020. In his words, “Certainly, COVAX is a step in the right direction. The initiative effectively creates the world’s largest advance market commitment for vaccines, outstripping any deals countries make independently…Low-income countries that have signed up to the plan will also gain access to safe and affordable vaccines they might otherwise be prevented from accessing for years.”
Beyond COVAX, an independent effort is to be welcome. For safety reasons and extant economic sanctions, countries like Cuba and Iran have begun the development of their own vaccines. Cuba alone has four vaccine candidates, namely, Mambisa, Abdala, and Soberana 1 and 2, all named after Cuban patriots. Iran has Coviran, being produced by Barekat, the state-owned Pharmaceutical Company. Nevertheless, there is no substitute for global cooperation and solidarity in the fight against COVID-19.
Akhaine is a Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.