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In Times of Crisis: COVID-19 and Vaccine Nationalism

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

Early 2021 brought good news – effective, safe vaccines to end the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while international leaders called the vaccine a global good, they simultaneously made bilateral purchasing agreements. These agreements quickly reserved the bulk of vaccines being made, disadvantaging poor nations who cannot wield the same level of purchasing power in the competitive market. Experts quickly coined this practice vaccine nationalism.

Immediately gaining popularity, the term vaccine nationalism has been discussed by various world leaders and covered by the world news such as the BBC, US News, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, and more, with the WHO’s general director warning of the impending ‘catastrophic moral failure’ that will result from this trend.

Here, I define vaccine nationalism as the political strategy for a state to prioritize itself when purchasing vaccines, foregoing global solidarity despite the benefits of a more liberal and equitable approach, such as restricting bilateral deals or waiving intellectual property rights through the WTO. This approach has created a vast disparity of vaccine access between rich and poor nations (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Average Number of Vaccine Doses per 100,000 Population Made Available Through Bilateral Purchasing Deals, by World Bank Income Country Classification. Data from: Our World In Data, The World Bank, UNICEF.

Vaccine nationalism is the direct result of increased resource competition in the time of the COVID-19. In times of crisis, resources easily become limited and therefore more valuable – it’s simple supply and demand.

In the case of COVID-19, there have been periods of reactivity where the necessary resource to address the situation created by the crisis - personal protective equipment (PPE), testing supplies, ventilators, and cleaning supplies - is suddenly in high demand and short supply, leading to high levels of competition. We have all, at one point or another over the past year, struggled to find something we needed to face these trying times, whether it was toilet paper, Clorox wipes, a COVID test, or, if you were unlucky enough, a ventilator. Vaccine nationalism is a symptom of this high-demand/low-supply resource competition playing out on the global stage.

Experts believe this trend will prolong the pandemic; as we see variants continue to mutate, the lack of vaccines anywhere is a risk for people everywhere. However, as with any crisis and resulting resource competition, the situation is much more nuanced than rich advantage and basic economics, despite first impressions. Access to resources that become high demand during times of crises, such as the vaccine today, is critical to being able to mitigate the effects of and bring an end to the crisis. Access is not only generation and purchasing but is additionally infrastructure, governance, individual decision-making, and systemic (in)equity.

If only considering the critical step of purchasing - the first area where vaccine nationalism may play a role - there are already multiple dimensions to consider. Nationally, leaders may be facing political pressure to pursue vaccine nationalism as a form of security for their citizens. On the other hand, countries are actively re-allocating and providing state-funded or purchased vaccines as a form of diplomacy to gain political favor in the global arena, using the vaccine as a tool for foreign policy.

Beyond purchasing, to infrastructure, governance, and individual access, vaccine nationalism will likely amplify existing inequity, and could foster nationalistic community sentiments such as Us vs Them politics. If used effectively as a tool of foreign diplomacy, it could reshape the international order as countries turn to new allies to get the vaccine.

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