COVID-19 has undeniably shaken the foundations of the world while disrupting and reshaping global power dynamics. A stringent global lockdown, which was deemed an only remedy in order to halt the transmission of virus, is now being eased by COVID-19 vaccines as the most demanded product. Health diplomacy which was perceived as the most ignored arena in pre-COVID world is now gaining attention by the global countries either to rebuild economies or to cement their foothold in global arena. In coeval era, with the advent of vaccine, the world is being divided into three major factions; the countries which are adopting policy of vaccine nationalism, the countries which are weaponising vaccine as a power tool by vaccine diplomacy and lastly, the countries which are entangled in the vaccine dependency as they are unable to manufacture vaccine domestically and are dependent on the donations.
Vaccine nationalism entails the phenomenon by which effluent and high income countries buy or produce vaccine for their domestic population. Countries regard national interest and prefer domestic vaccination even at the cost of poor states globally. Since the outbreak of cataclysmic pandemic, United States has been adopting nationalist policy either by banning exports of PPE (personal protective equipment) or, above all, by denying the membership of COVAX (COVID-19 Vaccines global access) which is an international collaboration between the WHO, Coalition for Epidemic preparedness innovations (CEPI) and the Global Alliance for Vaccines ad ionization (GAVI) aiming to deliver vaccines to lower income countries who cannot afford vaccines. In recent times too, when every country is striving to vaccinate its population by maximum, US has already got 14 percent of the country vaccinated and 26 percent has received the first dose. Moreover, US is among the leading countries which are producing vaccine domestically. The self-reliance of United States coupled with its nationalist attitude is questioning the mantra of liberalism, multilateralism and globalization pioneered by the US. It is not only tarnishing its soft image as a global hegemon but also neglecting the substantial reality that nobody can be protected from this apocalyptic virus until everybody is protected. Vaccination of every living soul in every country will eventually guarantee a COVID-19 free world.
Moving on, the gap left by the US is being filled by China as a responsible global leader under the ambit of vaccine diplomacy. The driving factors behind China’s mask diplomacy are both economic and geopolitical interests. Until now, four vaccines have been approved in China: BBIBP-CorV, CoronaVac, Convidecia and ZF2001. China is giving priority access to African and ASEAN countries in order to flex its muscles in these regions. Moreover, it wants to undo the US conspiracy blaming China as the nemesis of the virus outbreak. Until now, it has donated vaccine to Myanmar, Nepal, Brunei and Cambodia and is also lending hand to the Middle Eastern countries. It is pertinent to note here that China is offering vaccine aid to 69 countries and exporting doses to 43 countries and has also joined COVAX in October, 2020. Thus, it can be analyzed that the reason of joining COVAX by China rests on the economic grounds. Though its bilateral aid outweighs its contribution to COVAX, but it will get the advantage by increasing the China’s share in global vaccine market as it would choose its own vaccine brand it has pledged to buy. China is also utilizing vaccine diplomacy in geopolitical arena to satiate its geopolitical motives. It is reported that China offered Paraguay vaccines on the condition of severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan. However, now US and Taiwan is aspiring to help Paraguay. In the similar vein, Israel had paid Russia to send sputnik jabs, Russian indigenous vaccine, to Syria in exchange for prisoner swap. It bears testimony to the fact that powerful states exploiting dependent countries to satiate their own interests and advance their own power.
On the other hand, India is aspiring to contain China’s entrenching influence as a regional power. Although being the second hardest hit country after US, India is now producing 60% of world’s vaccines by volume. The serum institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, signed a deal in April 2020 to produce 1 billion AstraZeneca-oxford vaccine doses half for domestic use and half for other low countries. Coupled with its neighborhood first policy, Indian Prime minister Narendera Modi has also announced Vaccine Maitri initiative (Vaccine friendship policy) which aims to provide vaccines to other countries on seemingly humanistic grounds. India has already donated vaccine doses to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, Bhutan and also sent batches to other southeastern countries. Both China and India are contesting in Asia to maximize their supremacy in the region. This Indo-China contest is evident from the measure that India announced the donation of 100,000 doses to Cambodia a day after China sent 1 million doses to Cambodia. Similarly, China sent doses to Nepal after India sent donations to Nepal. Equally important to note here that US with its vaccine nationalism is also concerned about China’s looming domination. Hence, US is alliancing with India in Indo-Pacific region with the sole and converging aim to contain China. In this scenario, US-India bonhomie is staging challenging grounds for the dependent countries in the region. Recent QUAD (US, India, Australia and japan) summit in March, 2021 announced to ensure the supply up to 1 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses across Asia. This will make the region a battle ground enmeshed in the US-India rivalry against China. Amidst vaccine diplomacy, the poor countries will be forced to take sides between great powers rivalry as they cannot afford to remain under lockdown which culminates in dwindling economies.
There are only two indispensable options left for poor countries; either indigenous vaccine production or gaining donation form rich countries. Whatever the option would be employed, economics is at the core. With crumbling economies, poor countries can neither produce vaccine domestically, at least in short run, nor can deny the vaccine donations while indulging themselves in political rivalries. However, in the long run, poor states should revamp their domestic policies and fix internal fault-lines with the aim to be self-reliant in vaccine arena. As history lends credence to the fact that pandemics have been occurring all throughout the past and will continue to reoccur. Public private partnership is the most effective strategy for poor countries in this arena comprises public funded infrastructure and financial investment to the private pharmaceutical industries. Hence, amid vaccine nationalism and vaccine diplomacy by the effluent countries, poor countries should reinvigorate their health policy rather than being victimized of the global political contest. With the world becoming more interconnected and globalized than ever, the recent pandemic and the future outbreaks will present more serious and graver challenges. The hitherto divided world needs to recall the words of a French microbiologist Louis Pasteur:
“Gentlemen, it is the microbes who will have the last word”
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