Butterfly Effect: The Liberal Vaccine Populists - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: The Liberal Vaccine Populists

Butterfly Effect: The Liberal Vaccine Populists

By Charu Sudan Kasturi


Donald Trump might not be in office, but his vaccine nationalism policies are only growing stronger.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Ursula von der Leyen is no Donald Trump. The European Union’s boss is suave and sophisticated, a veteran politician and a proponent of human rights. On Monday, the EU announced sanctions on several senior Chinese officials over the forced detention and persecution of the Uyghur minority and others in the country’s Xinjiang region. (Beijing hit back with sanctions of its own against Brussels.)

But a year after promising European support for the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to developing nations, von der Leyen on Sunday backed off from that commitment. The EU, she said, wouldn’t be able to share vaccines with other countries while it battles to secure enough supplies for its own member states. Among the nations shut out is Britain, a member of the EU until December, and now left to ponder a significant delay in its vaccine rollout because of Brussels’ decision.

If the EU’s “me first” approach with vaccines sounds familiar, that’s because it mirrors the vaccine nationalism of former U.S. President Donald Trump, who had made clear the U.S. wouldn’t be sharing shots with others until all Americans are vaccinated. In March 2020, Trump’s attempts to secure exclusive vaccine deals with manufacturers for the U.S. sparked outrage in Europe and especially in von der Leyen’s country, Germany. A year later, the EU is following Trump’s template.


An employee works on a production line at the factory of British multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Saint-Amand-les-Eaux, northern France.

Source Getty Images

And it isn’t alone. Two months after Trump reluctantly left the White House, other democracies and domestic rivals who promised to be different are increasingly adopting the pandemic populism the former U.S. president pioneered. The World Health Organization and experts like Bill Gates have warned that vaccine nationalism could aggravate global inequalities and leave us all less safe. Yet those concerns appear to be falling on deaf ears at a time when countries are racing to open up their economies and introduce controversial policies like “vaccine passports” — documents that would give greater travel rights to those who’ve had COVID-19 jabs.

Asked on March 1 if President Joe Biden’s administration would share vaccine shots with allies, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki was blunt in her response. “No,” she said. “The president has made clear that he is focused on ensuring that vaccines are accessible to every American. That is our focus.” Only last week did Biden bend somewhat, offering up to 4 million vaccine doses to Mexico and Canada. The U.S. is trying to coax Mexico into stopping migrants flooding its border, and the vaccines might sweeten the deal.

The Biden team’s vaccine hoarding stands out even more, given that America is expected to have a surplus of 600 million shots by the second half of the year. Meanwhile, Russia and China, America’s biggest global rivals, are busy shipping their vaccines to poorer nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America, even though Moscow and Beijing have so far inoculated a smaller chunk of their population compared to America.

President-Elect Biden Receives COVID-19 Vaccination

Then-President-elect Joe Biden gets his COVID-19 shot in December.

Source Getty

Meanwhile, India, whose Prime Minister Narendra Modi has boasted about his intent to share vaccines with the world, is having second thoughts too. The country is the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines and has already supplied shots to several nations. But faced with a fresh surge in domestic COVID-19 cases, Indian manufacturers have signaled to Brazil, Morocco and Saudi Arabia that they might need to wait for their promised doses.

To be sure, it’s perfectly understandable for each nation to look after its own first, though in a globalized world, none of us are really safe until we all are — unless countries with enough shots want to limit their interactions to other similarly vaccine-endowed nations. Given how little we still know about the period for which COVID-19 antibodies last, one could argue that hoarding some excess doses also makes sense.

But this is about much more than health — it’s about profit. The U.S., EU and the U.K. have opposed a proposal led by South Africa and India asking the World Trade Organization to waive some patent restrictions on the vaccines so that lifesaving know-how can actually save lives through cheaper vaccines manufactured locally in poorer nations.

Intellectual property laws are meant to safeguard innovation and incentivize investment in research. But if private profit for pharma giants and rich nations so casually trumps the hope of saving lives, the West shouldn’t be surprised if the rest of the world views its homilies on human rights as hypocrisy.

Trump never pretended to champion a fairer world. Biden, the EU and other democratic giants like India insist they’re different. For the moment, they represent just a different strain of the vaccine nationalism that continues to spread unabated in 2021.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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