Can the world overcome vaccine nationalism?

NEW DELHI Aug 19, 2020, 08.48 AM(IST) Written By: Wajahat Qazi

Coronavirus vaccine Photograph:( Reuters )

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In this race to the bottom, nations are vying to be parochial and narrow-minded, placing their own peoples before ‘others’.

The ongoing Covid 19 pandemic is a blight that as unprecedented as it is dangerous and fatal. It amounts to stating the obvious that this virus has taken a humungous toll in terms of lives lost and brought the world to a standstill.  

The very disaster that the virus swept away the world should have made powers that be view it as a humanitarian disaster-one that should have brought all peoples and states of the world together to fight this common enemy. But, nay, what has accrued is what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls ‘vaccine nationalism’.

In this race to the bottom, nations are vying to be parochial and narrow-minded, placing their own peoples before ‘others’.  This accrues from tribalism and the organization of people into political units (or tribes) called national states. Because of this, there is politics and politicking behind vaccine nationalism. If the government of a given nation-state wins the race for the vaccine and inoculates its people first, it can reap dividends in the political and electoral cycle. But precisely because of this, the race for the vaccine becomes almost zero-sum, paralleling and mimicking the ‘usual ‘competition between states.

Decent people having common sense would agree with the electoral cycle hypothesis but argue that it is but ‘natural’ for a given nation state to take care of its people first and then the rest. On the face of it, this is inarguable. But who or what constitutes the people? Is it ‘ethnie’ or the ‘patrie’ that makes for a nation? Is there something organic about the ‘ethnie’ and the ‘patrie’?

I must digress here. I am not, for one moment, a starry eyed ‘One Worlder’.  My fanciful adherence to this idea has long gone it crashed and floundered on the rocks of reality. The world is and will remain divided into nation states that will compete, fight and perhaps even destroy one another. The reasons for the enduring and long lasting fetish for the nation state is that while the ‘ethnie’ and the ‘patrie’ might be constructs given a real hue by some intellectuals and the political practices that followed, ‘tribalism’ is hard wired into the DNA of humans. This is not a nature versus nurture debate or formulation. It is a prosaic matter accorded life by what people believe to be common culture through practice and ideas.

Right or wrong, I am not debating that here. But, the problem is that it has real life consequences. While people or tribes can go to war with other tribes, sometimes precisely for being a different tribe, in the modern world and in the realm of immediacy, Covid 19 is giving impetus to this tribalism. It should not. In an ideal world, even if the world were divided into tribes (nation states), the humanitarian crisis induced by Covid 19, should have brought the tribes together to find a cure. Contrarily, what is happening is a ‘race to the bottom’ where a competitive dynamic-both commercial and political- has assumed precedence.

This is a travesty. If co-operation over competition would have been the operating dynamic with respect to finding a vaccine to the dreaded Covid 19, maybe, just maybe, a vaccine might have been discovered by now. Or, in the least, it would be at a stage soon to be available to humanity, from the prime minister of a given country to an office clerk to a street sweeper and even the homeless. But, no, tribes don’t think this way.  They put their own first, at times, even at the expense of others.

Are we condemned to live as tribes?  Albeit iffy, the answer is a bleak yes. As a hypothetical example, Abdul from Morocco will always give preference to Ahmed from the same country, or an Olson from Denmark will prefer Poulsen, the blond Dane. Politics at the macro, interstate level is also going the same way. What is a bottom up demand or narrative for ‘authenticity’ is responded to or even encouraged at the top. Humankind then, in all likelihood, remain wedded to its respective tribes. Does this augur well for humanity? No. Will it lead to peace within and without the tribe? This is an unknown unknown. But what is certain is that many across the world will suffer or even die because tribes will compete over the Covid 19 vaccine and not share the proverbial fruit as much as it should.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL) 

Wajahat Qazi

Wajahat Qazi is particularly interested in politics, global security and political economy. He is a wanderer and fancies himself to be a wannabe writer.