Over the past one and a half years or so, the pandemic has changed many things in our lives. It may continue to bring in more changes as the consequences of the pandemic unfold. Such change will not only be due to the devastating economic impact of the pandemic but also because of the geo-political dynamics that will emerge from the crisis.
One of the important ramifications of the pandemic is the change in the world order. The pandemic has emphasised the need for a stronger global community. The need for a meaningful globalisation has been felt much more than even before. However, the spirit of globalisation became weaker much before the outbreak of the pandemic. A number of shifts were observed in the global geo-political order with implications for the global economy as well. Countries were resorting to protectionism increasingly in an attempt to save their domestic economies. There were increasingly more restrictions on movements of goods and services even though in a globalised world the need for such movement is essential. The power and necessity of multilateral trading system such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) became weaker over the years. The objectives of such organisations have been undermined as powerful countries remained too stubborn to make any compromise for the greater global interest.
During the pandemic, nationalism has become more prominent. The rationale for such nationalism has been justified given the nature of the deadly disease. The first attempt by countries to stop the disease had been through the closure of national borders and restricting international travels to and from their countries—given that the virus spreads across borders.
More recently, vaccine nationalism that emerged in view of the shortages of vaccines, is another demonstration of global politics. Vaccinating the domestic population first is of course a rational decision. However, the outcome of nationalistic positions is far-reaching. The way the pandemic has been addressed by global leaders so far indicates their apathy and incompetence to face such a challenge collectively. This has also demonstrated their short-sightedness in dealing with the crisis.
Despite the unprecedented spread of the virus, developed countries are yet to perceive that the pandemic is a global crisis. This is a global public policy challenge and this cannot be solved by anyone alone. Even if some countries vaccinate their entire population, they are still not safe. Because we do not live in isolation. We live in an interdependent world. Closing of borders cannot be continued forever and is not a solution in any manner.
Unfortunately, the powerful countries have failed to demonstrate their leadership during the pandemic. A global crisis of this nature required prompt but farsighted initiatives. The USA under the Trump administration was in denial of the existence of this virus and was busy in unearthing the so-called Chinese scheme for spreading this virus. Now when the Biden administration has taken the pandemic seriously and has been vaccinating the American people fast, one still finds the lack of full commitment towards the global citizens.
Given the dire health crisis and shortage of vaccine supplies, several countries want to manufacture their own vaccines. But the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) stands as a stumbling block. The TRIPS agreement which was negotiated during the Uruguay Round negotiations of the WTO and came into force in 1995 protects creations and innovations by patents, copyrights and trademarks. Pharmaceutical companies enjoy such patent benefits for investing on innovation and producing medicines. This has given them the monopoly of producing certain medicines due to which they can also charge high prices. Currently, pharmaceutical companies are opposing the transfer of intellectual property to countries for making the vaccines. The USA has agreed to enter the negotiation on TRIPS waiver at the WTO so that poorer countries can make their own vaccines. Unfortunately, some European countries including Germany are against TRIPS waiver. Of course, France and Italy have supported this move. The UK and the EU are in favour of sharing the knowhow with oversight under the system of licensing. Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Indian Serum Institute have made such arrangements.
Of course, apart from the argument on the motivation of the companies for innovation, another important concern is geo-politics. The fear of China and Russia taking advantage of this waiver is also holding them back from taking the decision on waiver of intellectual property rights.
Unless vaccines are manufactured and distributed at a mass scale, economies around the world will not be able to go back to the previous levels of growth. Till now vaccines have gone to the richer countries mostly. The numbers are astonishing. So far, only one percent of the total population in the 29 poorest countries of the world have received the vaccine. On the other hand, about 67 percent in the UK and 56 percent in the USA have received the first dose of the vaccine. Such divergence in vaccine availability is going to accelerate the disparities among countries—both in terms of health and economic prosperity. The recovery from the pandemic will not only be delayed but will lead to a further unequal world.
In the midst of the rising health dangers and inability of the traditional global powers to support countries in inoculation, the geo-political vaccine competition has surfaced and is holding ground. The Chinese and Russian vaccines are making their ways to several regions including some of the European countries. In some of the middle eastern countries, China supplied its vaccines. Chinese and Russian efforts in helping with medical supplies and doctors in some countries are also considered as strategic moves.
How is Bangladesh positioned in all this? Bangladesh had rolled out its vaccination programme in February this year with a lot of promises. It was relatively early compared to many countries. Also, the vaccination programme has been systemic and hassle free. However, within three months of the initiation, the vaccination programme has faced uncertainty. The Serum Institute of India had agreed to supply 30 million AstraZeneca jabs in six months to Bangladesh. However, after sending only seven million vaccines the SII expressed its inability to send any more vaccines as the government of India imposed a ban on vaccine exports in view of the worsening pandemic situation in the country. So, about 13 lakh Bangladeshis who have been waiting for their second doses of vaccines are now concerned about it. Despite Bangladesh's requests, there is not much hope to get vaccines from India at this moment, even though Bangladesh has already paid for half of the doses to be supplied by the Serum Institute.
While this is a disappointing development, the dependence on one single source for such a critical health problem by the government of Bangladesh is now being pointed out as a major weakness in its effort to vaccinate its population. Currently, the government is trying to collect vaccines from China, Russia and the USA. Clearly, the geo-political standing of these three countries are different. Not only the USA, but also India is not likely to be happy with Bangladesh's efforts to procure vaccines from China. Indeed, China had offered vaccines earlier. Bangladesh did not respond to the Chinese gesture to keep India happy. Unfortunately, the geo-political factors have influenced Bangladesh's decision-making rather than public health concerns. By doing so, the government has ignored the urgency of tackling the health crisis. Hopefully, future decisions of the government on mobilising vaccines will be made in a more pragmatic manner.
Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.Views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of her organisation.