Vaccine Nationalism is a Dead End and We're Running out of Road

Most Canadians think that when the vaccination process is over, life will return to normal. Sorry to be spoilers, but it won't – not with billions of people waiting in the wings. Fortunately, we can do something to fix this: we can vaccinate them – or we can pay the price. The issue thus is not one of charity; it is about self-interest. Let us explain.Wealthy countries rightly expect their people to be vaccinated as quickly as possible. We want our businesses to reopen and our lives to return to normal. But there is a bigger picture.In the rush to succeed, our governments have bought up most of the vaccine. Ten wealthy countries are responsible for 75 per cent of the doses now being delivered. Canada alone has secured 10 times the amount needed for our entire population.Citizens of these countries might see this as savvy or reassuring, but to the people standing in line, talk of “Canada First” or “America First” or “Europe First” sounds a lot different. To them, it is simply “Me First.”They have a point. By monopolizing the supply, wealthy countries simply prevent the real solution – global vaccination – from occurring. At the same time, hoarding the vaccine turns out to be self-defeating. The logic is not complicated:We know that variants can undermine the vaccines. Vaccine nationalism is turning whole regions of the globe into giant petri dishes for mutations.As The Economist warned last week, more than 85 countries won't even get access to a vaccine before 2023. In the meantime, the pandemic will rage on, likely turning much of Africa and Southeast Asia into seething cauldrons (map):But is this really a problem for vaccinated countries? Why can't the virus be “contained” until these other countries “catch up?” It worked with Aids. Once an effective therapy was found and the disease became treatable, developed countries decided it was a “third-world problem” and moved on.But COVID is different. Walling-off billions of people until everyone is vaccinated won't work. The global village is too integrated, the borders are too porous, and unlike Aids this virus is air born. New variants are already increasing the speed and effectiveness with which it spreads, as well as its deadliness and resistance to vaccines. Does anyone think this will stop?To beat the virus, we must wrestle it to the ground – everywhere. And that requires an effective global vaccination program. In our view, the threat of mutations is already reason enough for wealthy countries to support such an initiative, but there is more.Vaccine nationalism is creating new geopolitical and economic issues for rich countries. China and Russia have begun using “vaccine diplomacy” to exploit growing anger in the developing world and to forge new political and economic alliances with countries in need.China, for example, is offering its vaccine to countries in Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. It proposes to build a vaccine logistic hub in Ethiopia, and production facilities in Egypt and Morocco.Russia is providing shipments to countries across South America, the Middle East, and Central Asia, including 10,000 doses to the Palestinian Territories.Last week, Russia's vaccine, Sputnik V, was shown to be 95 per cent effective – on par with Pfizer and Moderna. Sputnik however is only half the price of these two competitors and doesn't need the same kind of cold storage, which makes it highly attractive to countries with warm climates and large rural populations.This vaccine diplomacy is not humanitarian. Our adversaries are seeking to extend their influence and undermine ours. Their strategy is to divide and conquer and it appears to be working. The political lesson is obvious: If we don't help these countries, our adversaries will.For the moment, however, let us simply note that vaccine nationalism has consequences beyond public health. Specifically, the global economy relies on developing countries for their labour, materials and, ultimately, as emerging markets for our goods and services. Cutting them off from the supply of vaccine undermines their productivity, and that hurts us – badly.Last week, Secretary-General Angel Gurria of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) used the findings of a new study to warn wealthy countries about the economic costs of failing to share the vaccine.“The global economy stands to lose as much as US$9.2 trillion, which is close to half the size of the U.S. economy…half of which would fall on advanced economies," he said.As a trading nation, this could have a huge impact on Canada's recovery plans for Tourism, Aerospace, foreign students, cleantech, and much more. The take-away is that wealthy countries like Canada should be building bridges, not burning them. ***** Our leaders assure us that the end of the pandemic is in sight. We've argued that it is not. Vaccines are a huge step forward, but until every country has an effective program, the benefits will remain limited and conditional. Health, trade, and security are all at risk – and a lot more.As The Economist grimly concludes, the pandemic now threatens to become endemic. Wealthy countries can prevent this, but they need to look beyond their own borders and see the pandemic for what it is: a global problem that needs a global solution.We really are all in this together.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.