BY TOM ARMS
Squabbles, soft diplomacy, hard diplomacy, and even harder economics are all playing unseemly and seemly roles in the life-saving scramble for coronavirus vaccines.
The pandemic offered an opportunity for global cooperation to combat a global problem. It could have been a template for tackling other globalised problems such as post-pandemic economic recovery, climate change and future pandemics.
But vaccine nationalism has—in the words of World Health Organisation (WHO) Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus—brought the world to the “brink of a moral failure.”
So far the developed world has done a reasonably good job of vaccinating its citizens. Excluding Palestinians, tiny Israel is streets ahead with about 31 per cent of its population having received the first Pfizer BioNtech vaccine. The UK has delivered the first round of its immunisations to about 12 per cent of its citizens. The US started slow but has picked up the pace. About eight per cent of Americans have received their first inoculation. EU countries lag behind at two per cent.
The European Union’s relatively poor record is attributed to the Brussels bureaucracy, political posturing among the 27 countries, poor contract negotiations by its lawyers and bottlenecks at the pharmaceutical companies’ production lines. National health ministers from the 27 countries have turned on Brussels who have responded with threats against the pharmaceutical companies Astra Zeneca and Pfizer BioNtech and warnings about restricting the export of EU-manufactured vaccines outside of the European Union.
The European Union has its problems, but they are nothing compared to those in the developing world. At the latest count, 28 people in Sub-Saharan African have been vaccinated.
In April last year, the WHO came up with a plan to ensure the fair global distribution of vaccines in a manner which was beneficial to all. It was called COVAX. 156 members of the WHO signed up to it. The US dropped out of the scheme when Trump pulled America out of the WHO, but Biden has now re-joined both the WHO and COVAX.
The thinking behind COVAX is partly altruistic and partly recognition that the pandemic affects the entire world and will not be beaten—in economic and health terms—until the entire world has been vaccinated. It is a huge financial, humanitarian, political, economic and logistical task. The first problem is manufacturing enough doses of the vaccine which—at this stage—is likely to be mainly Astra Zeneca’s offering because it does not require expensive and difficult cold storage facilities.
So far it looks as if two billion doses of the vaccine will be available to develop countries by the end of this year. That is a year later than the developed world and only about a quarter of the world population.
To cover the shortfall China, Russia and India are seeking to expand their global influence by rushing in with vaccine diplomacy. India is well-placed to be a leader in this influence race. It is a pharmaceutical powerhouse. Much of the research is done in Europe and America, but India manufactures 60 per cent of the world’s vaccines. One that it manufactures under license is Astra Zeneca.
The Delhi government has made it known that it will be distributing vaccines at little or no cost to a number of countries in South Asia, the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia. The obvious exception is Pakistan. Indian diplomats have made it clear that the altruism is meant to counter growing Chinese influence in the region.
The Chinese are also flexing their muscles with vaccine diplomacy. Their Sinovac has been ordered by a number of developing countries and is currently being distributed in Brazil, Indonesia and Pakistan. But there are questions about its efficacy and even its safety. The vaccine was first tested in the United Arab Emirates but Sinovac has been less than transparent about the test results.
Even more worrying is Russia’s SputnikV vaccine. Moscow is also signing up developing countries in a hearts and minds campaign. But their vaccine was tested on only 76 people before being rushed into manufacture and distribution.
Europe, Britain and America have said that they will make available vaccines and cash to buy vaccines, but so far they have been long on promises and short on delivery or even specifics of future deliveries. This despite the fact that America has ordered twice as many doses as it requires; Britain three times its requirement and Canada five times more than it needs. Norway is the exception. It too has 300 per cent more vaccines than it needs and has started sharing them with developing countries.
America’s Republican Party is at a political crossroads. Does it ditch or back Donald Trump? Kevin McCarthy, Leader of the Republican Party in the House of Representatives, knows which direction he prefers. He recently flew to Florida to visit Mar a Lago to kowtow to ex-president Donald Trump. The fact is that most of the Republican members of the lower house represent rural constituencies whose voters continue to declare their loyalty to The Donald. These Congressmen and women are up for re-election in one year and nine months. On top of that, Trump has let slip the rumour that he is considering setting up a third political party to be called The Patriot Party. This would, of course, split the Republican vote. Some polls claim that as much of the third of Republicans would move to a Trump party. But Republicans also have their anti-Trumpists. Most of them are in the Senate. Mitch McConnell, now the Senate Minority Leader, was a Trump acolyte for four years. But after Trump’s refusal to accept the election results and the Capitol Hill riots, the worm turned and declared: “I never want to speak to the man ever again.” Senators, unlike the lower house representatives, are elected for six years and their state-wide constituencies include large left-leaning urban constituencies. Republican senators, therefore, are more likely to join the ditch Trump campaign. But even in the Senate, the anti-Trump movement is not so strong among Republicans that they can find the 17 Republican members needed to convict the ex-president in his forthcoming Senate impeachment trial.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a stark warning this week about the future of the unity of the United Kingdom. In fact, he said that the UK was in acute danger of fracturing and becoming a “failed state.” The main current causes are the political stresses and strains caused by Brexit and the pandemic. Scotland is leading the threatened break-up. The Scots voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum. In its 2014 independence referendum, one of the main reasons the independence route was rejected was fear that the Scots would lose membership of the European Union. In May there were will be elections for the Scottish Parliament and polls indicate a landslide victory for the Scottish National Party. Its leader Nicola Sturgeon has promised a demand for a fresh referendum if the pollsters are correct. Northern Ireland also voted against Brexit and the deal that Boris Johnson has negotiated with the EU has put Northern Ireland firmly into the economic orbit of the EU and Eire. There is thus a growing feeling among the Northern Irish that reunification of the island is now inevitable and moving ever closer. The Johnson government’s handling of the pandemic has worsened matters. There has been little effort by Westminster to consult or coordinate public health actions in the regions. In fact, in most instances the national governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have taken the initiative which Westminster has belatedly followed. Gordon Brown wants a commission to review how the UK is governed and a campaign that emphasises the advantage of unions such as the NHS and a common defence. Is it too little too late?
Russian President Vladimir Putin is in the worst trouble he has faced since first coming to power at the end of December 1999. Long years of communist rule (preceded by an even longer heavy-handed Tsarist government) have made Russian citizenry wary of publicly voicing their discontent. But the last week has seen tens of thousands of anti-Putin demonstrators take to the streets. The cause is the plight of opposition leader and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny. Blogging lawyer Navalny has been a thorn in Putin’s side since he started his anti-corruption campaign in 2008. The regime has several times tried to silence him with dubious jail sentences for embezzlement and fraud. Then In August, Navalny drank from a hotel water bottle laced with Novichok. He fell into a coma. Friends arranged for him to be flown to a German hospital and it was not until this week that he was well enough to travel again. But instead of remaining safely in Germany, he returned to Russia and released a YouTube video about a multi-billion dollar Black Sea mansion which Navalny said was built for President Putin. The video has so far been viewed 100 million times. The moment Navalny’s plane touched down he was arrested. Not because of the video, but because while he was comatose in a German hospital suffering the effects of a Russian-produced nerve agent, Navalny failed to report to his probation officer. That’s when the demonstrations started. And with the demos came the crackdown. At the last count, 3,500 people had been arrested by Putin’s police.
America’s new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, has declared that relations with China will be the Biden Administration’s top priority. Not surprisingly, therefore, those diplomatic markers are being rapidly staked. Within days of Biden’s inauguration, Beijing was laid down a red line by dispatching 20 fighter jets to fly over Taiwan—the second such incursion in a year. Washington responded by scrambling its own squadron from a nearby aircraft carrier. The British have already sent a carrier-group to cruise South China and are said to be considering joining a Trump-inspired anti-Chinese alliance in Asia involving India, the US, Australia and Japan. In the meantime, the EU is taking a more cautious independent wait and see the stand. Chancellor Angela Merkel elaborated on European views at the World Economic Forum when she stressed the need to avoid a new Cold War. At the same time, she added that the West should continue to stress the human rights issue and the need for Chinese transparency. For his part, Chinese President Xi JinPing, welcomed Angela Merkel’s speech and said that the US and China should work to be competitors rather than rivals.
From this Sunday Hong Kong Chinese will be able to apply online for British Overseas Passports that give them and their dependents the right of residency in the UK. After five years they can apply for citizenship. The move is the British government’s answer to the deteriorating human rights situation in China. Westminster may be limited in what it could do to improve conditions for the Uighurs in Xinjiang or freedom of speech, but it still has some power in its former colony. The move by London has, not surprisingly, infuriated Beijing who fears a major brain drain from the entrepreneurial hothouse of Hong Kong. It immediately announced that China will no longer recognise the “so-called” British National Overseas (BNO) Passport and threatened further action. What those actions could be are unclear, but some suspect that the Chinese authorities may start to require Hong Kong citizens to show their passport when departing at international airports, thus preventing BNO holders from leaving.
Finally, Adolf Hitler has made a comeback. He is starting small: administrator for the Ompundja district of Namibia. But rest easy. The 54-year-old African in the former German colony has assured the world’s media that he is not a Nazi and has no plans for world domination. He was also an anti-apartheid campaigner in his youth. Namibian Hitler’s full name, by the way, is Adolf Hitler Uunoma. His father just liked the sound of the German Nazi leader’s name.