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Vaccine nationalism: A foretaste of a disunited international front on the climate crisis

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Richard Freund holds a Bachelor of Business Science degree from the University of Cape Town and has recently completed a master’s degree in Economics for Development at the University of Oxford. He is starting employment as a research assistant at Young Lives, an international study of childhood poverty coordinated out of the Department of International Development at the University of Oxford. The opinions in this article are his own.

The ‘vaccine nationalism’ of the global North does not bode well for the international cooperation and investment required to protect billions of vulnerable people in low- and middle-income countries against the effects of climate change.

As of 23 July 2021, 69% of the population of the United Kingdom had received at least one Covid-19 vaccine. In South Africa, at the same date, this statistic stood at roughly 9%. In Nigeria, it was as low as just over 1%.

Once Covid-19 vaccines were successfully developed in record time, the spotlight was on the most influential global leaders to see whether they would pursue an equitable distribution of vaccines. The United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, called the consideration of vaccine equity “the biggest moral test before the global community”.

We are now in a position to see that the leaders have failed this test. The distribution of vaccines has been remarkably uneven and unjust, with just 10 countries having administered 75% of all vaccines. The Covax programme, set up supposedly to ensure vaccine equity, is falling far short of its target of delivering two billion doses by the end of the year — having distributed a mere 90 million vaccines by mid-June. 

What we are witnessing is the development of a two-track pandemic, with richer countries protecting themselves through the prioritised distribution of vaccines and poorer countries getting left behind due to insufficient access.

This strikingly uneven distribution of vaccines undoubtedly represents a moral failure of global leaders, and places billions of people in preventable danger. But even beyond this, the inability of leaders to cooperate and distribute Covid-19 vaccines in an equitable manner sets a dangerous precedent for the cooperation required to address key climate justice concerns. 

Despite having historically emitted the fewest greenhouse gases in the world, low- and middle-income countries are disproportionately vulnerable to the negative effects of climate change. Disadvantaged groups are acutely susceptible to these impacts as a result of limited resources and low adaptive capacity. In order to incorporate climate justice into the fight against climate change, countries that have emitted the most historical emissions, such as the United States and those in the European Union, have a responsibility to stimulate and support climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing countries.

Yet, in a particularly revealing moment, the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines has suggested that when push comes to shove, the most influential world leaders will act in their countries’ self-interest to the detriment of those in a more vulnerable position. Even now, rather than ensuring that low- and middle-income countries obtain large-scale access to Covid-19 vaccines, some high-income countries are planning extra “booster jabs” and governments worldwide still refuse to suspend patent rights for the vaccines.

All of this suggests that, in moments of crises, global leaders will prioritise their own constituent populations even if the risks are far lower than those in developing countries. Such behaviour does not bode well for the international cooperation and investment required to protect billions of vulnerable people in low- and middle-income countries against the effects of climate change.

The upcoming COP26 summit, which brings together almost every country in the world for discussions on climate change, has a stated goal of “working together to enable and encourage countries affected by climate change to protect and restore ecosystems, build defences, warning systems and resilient infrastructure… to avoid loss of homes, livelihoods and even lives”. However, the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out makes it very difficult to believe that global leaders will be willing to put aside their self-interests and cooperate to achieve this mission.

Covid-19 vaccine equity has been a test of global solidarity that the world leaders have failed. While they have not adequately protected people in low and middle-income countries from this threat, let us hope that they perform better at providing protection for them from future climate-related ones. DM

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  • Countries have revealed their true colours during this pandemic. Will we even achieve global unity on our fragile planet?