Last year, European and North American countries managed to ignore warnings of a highly contagious pandemic dragging their feet in setting protocols in place, delaying mandatory mask-wearing, and giving mostly miserly handouts
to the millions struggling to survive in lockdown. Though the virus originated in China, not the west, western countries imagined that the virus would not touch them in quite the same way: Europe and the US entertained the fantasy that they alone were the captains of a more sophisticated political and bureaucratic system that could not only withstand a global pandemic but also remain largely immune to its threats. This year, these same countries have managed to outdo themselves by vacating their role on the international stage – hoarding vaccines and practicing only the most expedient, shallow pretenses of vaccine diplomacy. The wealthiest western nations have wiped their hands clean of any responsibility to slow a pandemic they helped magnify and spread.
Rich countries with 14% of the world’s population have secured 53% of the best vaccines. Almost all of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines will go to rich countries. The Moderna vaccine will go to rich countries exclusively; it is not even being offered to the poor. In fact, nine out of 10 people in poor countries may never be vaccinated at all. Washington is sitting on vaccines, making sure no one gets any while the US needs them. The European Union has exported 34m doses to, of all places, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong – countries that have no problem sourcing or paying for vaccines. In fact, the EU sent about 9m doses to the UK, a country which, no longer in the EU, also has what amounts in practice to an export ban of its own, official denials notwithstanding.
It’s unlikely that Moderna’s chief executives feel badly about the unvaccinated poor. The company forecasts sales of over $18bn for 2021, pushing Moderna into profit for the first time since its founding 11 years ago. Pfizer hasn’t done too badly either; they’re expecting a cool $15bn in sales.
South Africa, Africa’s worst-hit country, is buying Oxford’s AstraZeneca vaccine at nearly two and a half times the per-unit price of European countries. AstraZeneca’s French division told the press in November 2020 that it was capping the price per dose at €2.50, but somehow European countries are buying doses below the cap and African countries far above it. Canada has bought more doses per head than anyone else – enough doses to vaccinate every single Canadian five times over. But the entire continent of Africa – home to 1.3 billion people – has been allocated a total of 300m doses. As of the last week of January, in all of sub-Saharan Africa, only 25 vaccines had been administered. Twenty-five. The director general of the World Health Organization warned that the world was on the brink of a “catastrophic moral failure”. But the west has passed the brink a long time ago.
Israel, administering over 150,000 doses of vaccine a day in the dawn of the new year, leading the world in vaccine rollout, is pointedly, purposefully, not vaccinating the Palestinian people it occupies. When asked about it, the Israeli health minister sniffed that Israel had no legal obligation to vaccinate Palestinians. What then were the obligations of the Palestinians, he asked, to look after dolphins in the Mediterranean? It is a statement too stupid – too cruel – to answer. Yes, you have an obligation to the people you occupy; yes, you have an obligation to “the sea”. Israel wants to gift its surplus supply of Moderna vaccines to countries that moved their embassies to Jerusalem (or have promised to), such as Hungary, the Czech Republic and Honduras. A virus, for some, is manna. Let the Palestinians die.
While western countries were barging ahead, stockpiling vaccine doses for themselves, China and Russia were practicing vaccine diplomacy. China offered free doses of their vaccines to 13 countries; between the two of them, China and Russia have supplied more than 800m doses to 41 countries. No one imagines they do this out of charity, but it’s a clear, resounding sign of the changing world order. Eight hundred million to the EU’s paltry 34m. The US and UK have given nothing at all. This petty vaccine nationalism is irreparably damaging the west, betraying their claims to magnanimity, inclusive global leadership and concern for global health.
Covid-19 has brought us new models: Vietnam, New Zealand, Iceland, Rwanda – smaller countries, striving countries, poorer countries. Those countries protected their populations, they set protocols in motion, they saved lives. Until July 2020, according to the New York Times, Vietnam, a nation of 97 million people, was the largest country in the world to have not confirmed a single fatality from the coronavirus. By November 2020, it had registered just over 1,000 cases. On
the other hand, a year into the pandemic, half a million Americans have died from Covid-19, more Americans than died in combat in the first and second world wars and the Vietnam war combined. Yet, even as its country suffered and struggled, the mighty power still found time to bomb Syria. Joe Biden doesn’t herald a new start in American politics; he is a continuation of destructive, reckless American power. Trump, Biden and Obama are all guardians of a power that has no funds for healthcare, no cash for stimulus checks, but is rich in bombs and weaponry, flush with money for war.
One-third of US military personnel have refused to take the Covid vaccine, hesitant and suspicious. It is a special irony that the very organisation that had no doubts about invented weapons of mass destruction is grappling with skepticism about a vaccine. The same organisation that didn’t evince any trepidation over the specialised brutalities of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo is now paralysed by the ethical quandaries of the anti-vaxxer movement. The soldiers of the largest, most sophisticated military in the world choose not to do anything at all while hundreds of millions of people in the non-western world don’t have the luxury to question a potentially lifesaving vaccine – it’s not even being offered to them.
It was the hyper-capitalists who spread the plague, got rich off the vaccine, and now will heal comfortably, first in the queue for the best vaccines that they don’t even want. The poor who struggled to eat and survive, lockdown after lockdown, will wait in line and die. Covid-19 will destroy many things, but hopefully too the broken scaffolding of our moral imagination.
- Fatima Bhutto is a Pakistani author of fiction and nonfiction. Her novel The Runaways was published last year by Verso Books
- This article was amended on 17 March 2021 to add qualification to mention of a UK vaccines export ban.