Pitfalls of vaccine nationalism | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, April 10, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:59 AM, April 10, 2021

Pitfalls of vaccine nationalism

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic brought the world literally to a standstill, with infections in the millions and deaths of more than 1.8 million people. But then, another one million died in the next three months. The number of Covid-19 deaths now stands at 2,887,039 as of April 7, 2021, and the number keeps increasing every day.

This, of course, may not be a very high figure compared to some other pandemics, like the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. The former killed as many as 225 million people in four years in 1347-1351, while the latter killed 50 million people in 2 years in 1918-1919. In recent times, the Swine Flu killed between 151,700-575,400 people in 2009-2010, while the Ebola virus killed only 11,300 people in 2014-2016. The Asian Flu (H2N2) killed 1.1 million people in 1957-1958, and the Hongkong Flu (H3N2) killed 1 million people in 1968-1970. Such virus-related deaths otherwise suggest the irregular regularity of pandemics, and since some of the viruses become deadly through mutation, there is no escape from them. They co-evolve and live with other living beings.

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But then, with the development of science, humans now have far better knowledge to fight the virus. One cannot help point out that humans did not have the technology to see the virus during the Spanish flu. In fact, scientists began to see the virus for the first time in the 1930s. This is the time when the electron microscope was invented. Earlier in 1915, just a few years before the Spanish Flu hit the world, Frederick Twort, the English bacteriologist, discovered "bacteriophage", the viruses that attack bacteria. Since he noticed tiny spots within bacterial colonies, Twort hypothesised that "something" must be killing the bacteria. But Twort did not have the instruments to see the virus, which could have been one of the big reasons for so many Spanish flu deaths. Humans are so much accustomed to the idea of "seeing is believing" that not too many believed that the virus, which humans could not see during the Spanish Flu, was responsible for all the deaths! Science certainly has progressed in leaps and bounds, and that is why having the Covid-19 vaccines, and so many of them, in such a short space of time is not surprising.

One thing, however, remained unchanged from the time of the Spanish Flu. This refers to the dissemination of public health knowledge of how to keep the flu away. In fact, before vaccination, and the knowledge was prevalent during the Spanish Flu, three things needed to be pursued diligently: one, wearing a mask; two, washing hands; and three, maintaining physical distance, particularly in ill-ventilated public places. This is hardly rocket science, yet few would follow the prescription even today for reasons related to both enforcement and social practices or, rather, the lack of it. Too much of "enforcement" would make the state "draconian" or "authoritarian", the terms the western critics used against China and Vietnam for strictly enforcing the lockdowns. But both of them, I believe, succeeded in containing the Covid-19 pandemic relatively well largely because the practice of wearing a mask was prevalent among its citizens even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit them. Humans, after all, are homo habitus;they go by "practices", if we were to follow Pierre Bourdieu on this. The bulk of the world's population, including Bangladeshis, never made the practice of wearing a mask a habit or part of their daily life. Indeed, with a lack of enforcement and lack of public health measures, human morbidity and mortality from the Covid-19 pandemic could only rise. Bangladesh did relatively better, at least, during the first wave, but then, not because of "enforcement" and "practices" but more because of the weather or different strain of the virus or, maybe, natural immunity amongst the population resulting from too many viruses flowing around!

Vaccination is supposed to make a difference, but since it is a pandemic, only global cooperation in the development, production and distribution of the vaccine can guarantee its success. Unfortunately, some of the countries that are engaged in developing, producing and distributing the vaccine have opted for the politics of singularity or "vaccine nationalism", and are now engaged, quite sadly, in "vaccine diplomacy", without realising, however, that the virus, which has attained the status of a pandemic, can never be contained territorially or nationally. Such "vaccine diplomacy" is also engaged in maligning the "other", indeed, keeping true to the profession of diplomacy, as Henry Wotten, the English diplomat, remarked while travelling through Augsburg in 1604, "An ambassador is an honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country." Nothing can be sadder than this, particularly when the vaccine is required to save human lives and not for getting a supersonic plane or travelling to outer space!

Are we then still residing in the seventeenth century? Or, is Wotten's remark an outcome of an imperial ascendency, which is now not only out of place in the twenty-first century but also self-defeating to the cause of vaccination and development of the country. Any country pursuing "vaccine nationalism", particularly in production and distribution, is bound to face three things: i) The alienated country would start looking for other options, thereby minimising the goodwill the vaccine-nationalist country had with the affected country's people; ii) The global community would start working on an urgent basis to break the monopoly in producing the vaccine, indeed, to the point of having the vaccine produced in as many countries as possible. In the long run, or more precisely in the post-pandemic period, this would impact the production and distribution of other vaccines that are now a monopoly of the vaccine-nationalist country; and iii) Since no country is fully self-sufficient, there would always remain the fear of facing a tit-for-tat policy, which itself would drain out the vaccine-nationalist country, and that again, even without the policy ever being carried out!

What should Bangladesh do? Before we take this up, it is important to point out that the Covid-19 pandemic is not yet over! Mutation of the virus has made it deadlier, particularly in infecting people. Moreover, there have been reported cases of "double mutation" of the virus both in India and the US, which has made one commentator say that, "It sounds like something from a 'Ninja Turtles' movie, but the 'Double Mutant' strain of the coronavirus is no laughing matter." Put differently, Covid-19 is deadlier than ever! Those who are trying to ignore the second wave, even not trying to get vaccinated wilfully, are fooling themselves and bringing danger to the rest of the people in the community, including their near and dear ones.

Two things Bangladesh must do urgently, both of which are critical and pressing in the midst of "vaccine nationalism": ii) Political mobilisation is required to restrict, if not to contain, the possible high mortality during the second wave. Policing alone will not do. This is because "trust" in the police is very low in South Asia, including Bangladesh, partly because of the colonial legacy and partly because of the state of misgovernance in this part of the world. ii) Bangladesh must keep all the doors open to get vaccines. This is precisely what our time-tested foreign policy principle mandates us to do: "Friendship towards all; malice towards none." Bangladesh indeed has good relations with some countries more than others, but that should not in any way preclude it from getting vaccines from different sources. This is a matter of saving human lives and not the time to be engaged in politicking with vaccine nationalism!

 

Imtiaz Ahmed, Professor of International Relations and Director, Centre for Genocide Studies, University of Dhaka.

 

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