Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed in a press conference that the Biden administration is planning to loan around 4 million of AstraZeneca vaccines to Mexico and Canada over the following days. This decision comes at a time when most of the Hemisphere is looking for China and Russia for buffing up their vaccination supplies.
There is little doubt that the Western world has been largely successful at developing, testing and producing effective, lifesaving vaccines at a record time. The U.S. has used extensively the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to inoculate its population, Israel famously reached an historic deal with Pfizer (sharing them medical data) to supply its vaccination stockpiles, and the UK has managed to develop a successful vaccination program by also using their Oxford/Astrazeneca jab.
Western nations, however, have not been as effective at ensuring vaccination distribution worldwide. Not only has the western world felt short at negotiating deals with developing countries in Latin America or Africa, it has even engaged in vicious “vaccine wars” within itself with the European Union threatening to ban any export of the AstraZeneca vaccine to the UK amid their own floundering vaccination program.
The United States has also followed a similar approach with the vaccine distribution program, with Jen Psaki saying a couple weeks ago that the U.S. would not share its vaccine supply with Mexico, until all Americans have access to the jabs.
Although the White House decision yesterday does represent a slight deviation from that strategy, it is also important to note that the vaccines the U.S. is sharing with Mexico and Canada, AstraZeneca, is not being currently used in the country as the FDA has not approved it yet. Additionally, the amount of doses distributed would barely make a dent in countries with a combined population of over 150 million.
Vaccine distribution are both public health and politics
While Europe and the UK fight on who should get the vaccines produced by AstraZeneca and the U.S. only recently allowing to ship some additional unused vaccines to its closest neighbours, China and Russia have started an aggressive vaccine diplomacy campaign in the developing world.
Chile, which has the most successful vaccination campaign in Latin America, has done it mostly with the chinese Sinovac vaccine, while Hungary also bought large amounts of the Sinopharm (a state-owned company) jabs. Chile and Hungary are not alone at this, with at least 45 countries throughout the world building their supplies with chinese jab, while Russia has also gained a foothold in the vaccination diplomatic race, with at least ten latin american countries expecting to receive the Sputnik vaccine over the following months.
The issue of global vaccination is one of public health, as the quicker the global population reaches a level of immunization would not only reduce death rates in a considerable way but it would also avoid the virus to continue to develop mutations and strains that can hamper the effectiveness of the vaccines developed.
However, vaccination is also a deeply political and diplomatic issue. In a time of growing great power competition between the U.S. and China, every single global issue becomes a possible arena of competition between the American superpower and the emerging chinese presence. Poorer countries will be looking eagerly at who will be able to help them crush the virus through vaccination, whomever manages to do that will win some significant influence in the region.
As of today, the U.S. has disappeared from the stage, leaving the ground for competitive regimes like China and Russia to expand their global vaccination diplomacy without contest. Russia and China are not doing this due to philanthropic or purely humanitarian reasons, they are seeing an opportunity to increase their influence in the world, painting themselves as the key players in the global fight against the virus.
The Western developed nations have also played their part on the success of the chinese and russian strategy by engaging in a total war for vaccination among countries. It will be difficult for the U.S. to convince the thirld world that aligning with them would be on their self interest if they did not even attempt to lend a hand during this crisis.
The top priority for any government right now is to ensure their population can access vaccinations and be protected from the virus, nevertheless, it would be unwise to take a fully isolationist approach towards the issue. Vaccination cooperation schemes should be developed parallelly from the national efforts to vaccinate, a program that takes into account national needs but that also shows to the world that America is a reliable partner.
The U.S. is no longer the uncontested hegemon in the world and if the White House wants to mount a substantive defense of the liberal international order, it will need to do much more.