By Pablo Cesar Marin Graue – International Relations student
It's been more than a year since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. It is a bitter anniversary, but it is also a good time to think about how far we have come as a global community. There was so much confusion at the start about how to protect ourselves, but now, a year later, we have proven our collective capacity to move forward by developing several highly effective vaccines to counter the virus. The light is ahead of the tunnel, but there is one last hurdle that threatens to undo our entire progress. All around the world, wealthy countries have been hoarding vaccines, leaving huge swathes of the global population without access. This is a lethal mistake for rich and poor countries alike.
Let’s picture a scenario where one country is able to vaccinate 70-80% of its population. It is true that the population in that country would be better off, but there would be a slight catch. Even if you get the overwhelming population of your country vaccinated, if the rest of the world does not have access to the vaccine, that percentage is meaningless. Just like any virus, COVID-19 mutates, and produces new variants when left alone. These variants can eventually be so different to the original virus that the original vaccine is completely useless against it; this has already been proven by how the South African variant is partially immune to the Pfizer vaccine.
In the area of foreign policy, Russia and China have been aggressive in their marketing and distribution of vaccines to other countries. According to the Council on Foreign Affairs (Gayle et al., 2020):Russia is using the jab to bolster its image and investment prospects and to drive a wedge between EU countries. China is donating doses to gain leverage in territorial disputes and expand its influence under the Belt and Road Initiative. Both Moscow and Beijing have moved to undercut the United States in its own backyard by supplying vaccines to Latin America.
But this policy –as it is clear to any expert on the area– is not inclusive, but instead, transactional in nature. The Biden administration should not emulate this behaviour, rather, it should adopt an all-inclusive approach, just like the one it has proclaimed across his country. Just imagine if COVID-19 was treated like an enemy during wartime. Washington could activate the G-7 and NATO and call upon its allies to assist in a military and economic grand-scale operation to speed the flow of vaccines around the world; it could use the State Department, USAID, and the CDC to help countries with their vaccination programs; and it could enlist companies, nonprofits, and civil society organization to help increase the funding for production and distribution of the vaccine.
Rather than settling with transactional diplomacy, the United States has the capacity to bring upon a global campaign that can reinvigorate multilateralism, while being more pragmatic and inclusive than the international order it helped enable after World War 2. To say this is a momentous opportunity would be an understatement. After the presidency of Donald J. Trump, who was more concerned in burning, rather than building bridges, the Biden administration is well positioned to prove that democracy can in fact deliver, and that the ideals of the United States can still reach every corner of the world. By offering this model of global cooperation, Joe Biden could demonstrate, unequivocally, that the United States is not only back in the table, but that it has the most capacity and resources to look and lead far ahead into the future.
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Gayle, H., LaForge, G., & Slaughter, A. (2021, March 25). America Can and Should Vaccinate the World. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-03-19/america-can-and-should-vaccinate-world