The United Nations came into being after the horrors of the two world wars. The formation of this global institution, it was hoped, would nip the emergent inter-state problems in the bud, without letting them bloom to unmanageable proportions as happened during the two world wars. Realizing the common threats to humanity posed by nuclear weapons, deadly viruses, and changing climates, countries would cooperate. And why wouldn’t they when no country could tackle these problems on its own, and it was in everyone’s interest to cooperate? Yet global politics is proving to be far trickier.
There is now a mad rush to develop Covid-19 vaccines, with governments, and the pharma companies they back, competing to be the first to roll one out. The Russian vaccine is already in the market, even though its safety and efficacy are doubtful. The Americans, the Indians, the Chinese, the British—they are all in the race. The fear is that if the Americans successfully test a vaccine, they may be reluctant to send it to China, and vice versa. The Indians don’t trust the Chinese; the Russians don’t trust the Americans; the Americans don’t trust anyone else with the vaccine. This vicious circle of mistrust has given rise to a ‘vaccine nationalism’.
Some competition is desirable: Who knows whose vaccine will work? Yet this is also a dangerous race. The Russians claim their concoction works just fine. But given its doubtful development process, what if it gives those inoculated with it a false sense of security? Alternately, let us assume China is the first country to come up with a vaccine that works for sure. In that case, can it deny the vaccine to the Americans? Or at least look to profit from it handsomely?
If one American dies from a China-made jab—even as it successfully inoculates hundreds of thousands of other folks—this act of ‘bio terrorism’ may soon snowball into a full-blown diplomatic war. Top American infectious disease official Anthony Fauci has already cast doubts on the vaccines being developed in Russia and China. Yet the US will have no option but to import them if they are seen as working elsewhere.
In the middle of a pandemic, the US has just dusted off an old plan to strengthen its nuclear arsenal, even as it has withdrawn from the World Health Organization. Top carbon-emitting countries in the world are bitterly divided over climate change. All major powers now hold sizable reservoirs of deadly bacteria and virus that they can unleash on their enemies. The corona crisis is one more evidence that on the face of grave global threats, national leaders tend to turn inwards and to use the crisis to their advantage. After all, what do they get by invoking our common humanity?
The Russians have offered Nepal their new discovery. Do we take it? Or do we wait for the ‘more reliable’ American and British ones? And when a successful vaccine is discovered, somewhere, how much can Nepal pay for it, and how quickly can it be imported? Won’t big economic powers want to inoculate all their citizens first before exporting the vaccine? This is not idle speculation. There is no guarantee that the vaccines some big-pocket philanthropists are helping mass produce will actually work. If they don’t, the first few batches of the good vaccine that eventually emerges will go to the highest bidders. Poor places like Nepal will pay for the wait with many lost lives and livelihoods.