Developing countries' leaders at this week's virtual United Nations summit expressed concerns that the goal of making a Covid-19 vaccine available to all citizens of the world, rich and poor alike, is being hampered by the decisions of the U.S., China, and Russia to opt out of an internationally collaborative effort to produce and distribute a vaccine as well as by other wealthy countries choosing to reach deals with pharmaceutical companies in exchange for securing exclusive access to potential doses.
"Are people to be left to die?" asked Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.
According to the Associated Press, more than 150 countries have joined Covax—the Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility—a program co-led by the U.N.'s World Health Organization (WHO) "in which richer countries agree to buy into potential vaccines and help finance access for poorer ones."
As Common Dreams reported earlier this month, the Trump administration was heavily criticized for its decision to exclude the U.S. from the global vaccination cooperation pact, which the White House tried to justify by citing the allegedly "corrupt" influence of the WHO and China.
Now that China and Russia have elected to forgo Covax as well, worries are mounting about the potentially devastating consequences of nationalistic competition and vaccine hoarding.
New video on the issue of #vaccinenationalism – and how tensions are emerging between some of the world’s wealthiest countries and the WHO and the UN over how best to pursue a #COVID19 vaccine. Produced @briony_sowden https://t.co/NREjioE3qN pic.twitter.com/LTJnhGuaKm— Ros Atkins (@BBCRosAtkins) September 24, 2020
"The absence of Washington, Beijing, and Moscow means the response to a health crisis unlike any other in the U.N.'s 75 years is short of truly being global," AP reported. "Instead, the three powers have made vague pledges of sharing any vaccine they develop, likely after helping their own citizens first."
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres characterized Covid-19 as "a clear test of international cooperation," declaring that it is "a test we are failing so far."
#COVID19 is a clear test of international cooperation – a test we are failing so far.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) September 24, 2020
We need more, and better, multilateralism that works effectively and delivers for the people we serve. https://t.co/dtFduj5urI pic.twitter.com/PKT3EKIQMd
"It's not enough for only some G20 countries to realize that an equitable vaccine is the key to ending this virus and reopening the global economy," said Gayle Smith, president of the ONE Campaign, a global health nonprofit combating extreme poverty and preventable disease.
With the deadline for countries to join Covax just weeks away, some world leaders are using the U.N. meeting as an occasion to make the case for the U.S., China, and Russia to abandon what some scholars have called "health nativism" and recommit to international cooperation.
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Guterres cautioned against "withdrawing into national shells" and called for stronger multilateral institutions and better global governance as opposed to increased unilateralism and a "chaotic free-for-all."
We cannot respond to the #COVID19 crisis by going back to what was or withdrawing into national shells.— António Guterres (@antonioguterres) September 24, 2020
We need more international cooperation — not less; strengthened multilateral institutions — not a retreat from them; better global governance — not a chaotic free-for-all.
"Covid-19 is an unprecedented global crisis that demands an unprecedented global response," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus earlier this week. "Vaccine nationalism will only perpetuate the disease and prolong the global recovery."
Tedros added that "working together through the Covax Facility is not charity, it's in every country's own best interests to control the pandemic and accelerate the global economic recovery."
"To think that we can preserve the rich people, and let the poor people suffer, is a stupid mistake," said Guterres.
Rwandan president Paul Kagame noted that "ensuring equitable access to vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics will speed up the end of the pandemic for everyone."
"Vaccine hoarding will harm us all," said Tommy Remengesau Jr., president of the Pacific island nation of Palau, where there are no active cases of Covid-19.
"Nationalism and isolationism in the face of a pandemic are, as far as we are concerned, a prescription for failure," warned Mozambique's president Filipe Nyusi, while Slovakia's head of state, Zuzana Caputová, pushed for a "true globalization of compassion."
Observers acknowledged that, in the words of the AP's Cara Anna, "the world leaders' remarks, delivered not in a diplomatic scrum at U.N. headquarters but in videos recorded from national capitals," were significant, but how influential they will be in attaining a more collaborative and equitable approach to vaccine development and allocation is an open question.
"Speeches alone won't have an effect," said Tendai Mafuma of Section 27, a South Africa-based social justice group, "if there are no real measures put in place to make sure poor countries, and within them the poorest of poor, have access."