It has been a year since the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world. The global economy slowed down, the trade and movement of goods, services and people were choked, and global supply chains disrupted.
In the early days of the pandemic, many worried about the scarcity of medical equipment due to the export ban. Nevertheless, people always find ways to solve problems. When the world fell short of face masks due to surging demand, textile factories shifted their business to produce masks en masse.
The same situation occurred with other medical equipment like personal protective equipment, respirators and ventilators.
This state of scarcity became a political issue between Europe and China. When European Union states forbade exports of medical devices among themselves, China sent aid to several European countries that were facing shortages.
There were concerns that China's maneuvers during the pandemic would change Europe's geopolitics. The export ban seemed to be a scourge.
A similar situation is now unfolding with COVID-19 vaccines. The EU and the United Kingdom are accusing each other of banning exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is a British-Swedish product. The EU feels it has the right to ban exports of the AstraZeneca vaccine that is being produced at a factory in Leiden, the Netherlands, because it signed a contract to buy 90 million doses of the vaccine. The EU also banned exports of 250,000 doses of the vaccine from a factory in Anagni, Italy, to Australia, in order to fulfill the vaccine needs of its member countries.
The world has been witnessing the rise of a political phenomenon: vaccine nationalism.
Vaccine nationalism refers to a country’s political behavior that prioritizes meeting the vaccine needs of its citizens, rather than sharing vaccine supplies with other countries in a fair manner. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with prioritizing national interests. On the other hand, when the "me first" attitude leads to buying and stockpiling vaccines in excess of domestic needs, many poor countries in other parts of the world that cannot afford vaccines are left behind.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros A. Ghebreyesus wrote that vaccine nationalism was not only morally indefensible, but that it would also destroy others epidemiologically (“Vaccine Nationalism Harms Everyone and Protects No One”, Foreign Policy, Feb. 2, 2021).
The current imbalance in vaccine access is worrying. Rich countries that have only 16 percent of the world population have bought more than 60 percent of the world's vaccine supply. Poor countries are still fighting to get vaccines for 20 percent of their populations by the end of 2021, according to Tedros.
Due to the high transmission rate of COVID-19, both rich and poor countries will suffer if they do not work together Even though rich countries are able to vaccinate their entire population and ignore the needs of poor countries, the world economy will eventually fall by an aggregate US$12.5 trillion by the end of this year (Thomas J. Bollyky and Chad P. Bown, “The Tragedy of Vaccine Nationalism”, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2020).
Vaccine nationalism is a self-defeating phenomenon, which by no means fits the concept of nationalism.
In this regard, we can recall the nationalist concept of our founding president Sukarno: "socio-nationalism". Bung Karno's concept of nationalism was indeed rooted in anti-colonialism. Even so, nationalism could not be interpreted as withdrawing from international relations, as a nation does not exist in an empty, value-free space.
Nationalism a la Indonesia, which lives on in international relations and society, is framed as "social humanity", which gave birth to the term "socio-nationalism". This concept of socio-nationalism has found relevance in Indonesia's vaccine diplomacy.
Foreign Minister Retno L.P. Marsudi, in her capacity as cochair of the Gavi COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Advanced Market Commitment (COVAX AMC) Engagement Group and with her fellow cochairs, the Ethiopian health minister and the Canadian minister of international development, has pursued diplomatic measures to ensure vaccine procurement and allocation for all countries regardless of their level of economic progress.
It is interesting to look closely at the WHO director-general's press briefing on Sept. 21, 2020 that vaccine diplomacy must ensure that “some people are vaccinated in all countries, not all people in some countries”.
This means that vaccine diplomacy must ensure the equitable distribution of vaccines for all countries so at least 20 percent of the world population will can be vaccinated, in accordance with the WHO standard. The COVAX Facility aims to procure and distribute 2 billion vaccine doses to 200 countries by the end of this year.
Indonesia, Canada and Ethiopia have taken this approach in the context of global vaccine diplomacy under the WHO's coordination. The diplomatic leadership of Indonesia, Canada and Ethiopia is being tested in their defense of poor and middle-income countries to obtain the much-needed vaccines. In this context, the ethics of social humanity is serving as a moral guide in Indonesia's vaccine diplomacy.
As far as Indonesia's national interests are concerned, this approach to vaccine diplomacy has produced real results. Indonesia received 1.1 million doses of AstraZeneca in early March, out of the scheduled delivery of 11.7 million doses through May, and will obtain vaccines to inoculate 20 percent of its population (54 million) through the COVAX Facility. This means that Indonesia will receive 108 million doses by the end of this year, assuming that each vaccine recipient receives two doses.
Amid the global struggle over vaccines, it is understandable that vaccine nationalism has emerged. Nevertheless, in an increasingly connected world and keeping in mind the high transmission rate of COVID-19, a nationalistic mindset will only lead to self-destruction.
Through its vaccine diplomacy, Indonesia is promoting its brand of nationalism with a socio-humanitarian perspective. Through its active role in the COVAX AMC program, Indonesia has manifested its concept of “vaccine socio-nationalism” in global vaccine diplomacy.
The writer is a diplomat assigned to Vienna and the United Nations, and a lecturer of the international relations doctoral program at the School of Social and Political Sciences, Padjadjaran University, Bandung.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.