In recent weeks, disparities in vaccine distribution between various nations have begun to manifest. Countries such as the United States and United Kingdom have succeeded relative to other first world nations from an inoculation standpoint; other wealthy countries, such as those in the European Union, have failed to vaccinate their populations to a comparable extent. At this point in time, it makes sense that countries best equipped to vaccinate would prioritize vaccinating their own citizens over those in other countries. Opting to give vaccinations to other nations, even those that are struggling, would likely be a disastrous political gambit. This strategy also makes sense from an international relations perspective; realist thinkers, who believe that individual states must protect their own citizens over those in other countries, would applaud countries who prioritize domestic vaccinations over foreign ones.
This phenomenon, often dubbed “vaccine nationalism,” is politically advantageous, but proponents of vaccine nationalism are lacking in moral and epidemiological merit. Whereas wealthy countries are vaccinating their citizens at a rate of one vaccination per second, as of mid-February, there were still over 130 countries that had yet to receive a single COVID-19 vaccine. Although it theoretically makes sense for countries to vaccinate their own citizens before helping others, this action unfairly exacerbates socioeconomic disparities between wealthy and developing countries, and opens the door for vaccine-resistant COVID-19 variations to emerge.
Over the course of the pandemic, a variety of new coronavirus variants have spread around the world. Although vaccines appear to offer protection against many present variants of COVID-19, including the new B.117 variant that is currently plaguing the United States, there is no guarantee that these vaccines will protect against future variants.
Although programs exist to address inequities, they are limited in scope. COVAX, which seeks to distribute vaccines to the Global South, aims to vaccinate 2 billion people over the next year, which means that it could take multiple years for all human beings to get vaccinated. This issue is due, in no small part, to the privatization of vaccine research; large corporations that produce vaccines, such as Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, are able to set prices for vaccines that are often only affordable for wealthy countries. However, if vaccines remain inaccessible to countries in the Global South and the virus continues to rage on, new vaccine-proof variants will likely emerge that will erase humanity’s progress in combating the virus.
Vaccine nationalism has furthered disparities that have long existed between wealthy and lower-income countries. These disparities stem from the legacy of colonialism. As colonialist countries in the Global North have continually exploited the Global South, these lower-income countries have had their economies crippled, and they are unable to participate in the neoliberal vaccine market in which medicine is sold to countries with greater bargaining power. Because colonialist countries in the Global North have perpetuated a system which prevents lower-income countries from vaccinating their populations, they have a moral imperative to ensure that all human beings have access to COVID-19 vaccines. Therefore, it is essential that wealthy countries participate in vaccine distribution programs such as COVAX, both for moral and epidemiological reasons.