What happens when some countries think their people are more worthy of a vaccine

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If the COVID-19 pandemic should have taught us anything, it’s that we are globally interdependent. What happens in, say, the U.K., does not stay in the U.K. Our globalized economy means that people and things, including coronavirus, cross national borders. It seems like it would naturally follow that our efforts to end this worldwide disaster would also be global. Unfortunately, to the detriment of all, that’s not what’s happening. Instead, the natural progression of our collective capitalistic mindset has yielded vaccine nationalism — and it's slowing our efforts to fight coronavirus.

Vaccine nationalism, as a concept, is basically selfishness in the name of patriotism. “Vaccine nationalism means putting your own nation’s vaccine needs ahead of others, to the detriment of others,” explains Phillip Smith, an epidemiologist and professor of public health at Miami University in Ohio. And, as Smith explains, vaccine nationalism comes in many forms. One example is a nation not sharing their vaccine developments with other nations, as Russia did when they initially withheld scientific data about their Sputnik 5 vaccine. While Russia’s vaccine program is definitely suspect in terms of efficacy, who knows what scientists could have learned if that country had been willing to share their data.

Another example of vaccine nationalism is when a nation hoards the supply of vaccines, says Smith. According to a study by the People’s Vaccination Alliance, a network of organizations that includes Oxfam and Amnesty International, rich countries have bought enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations many times over, while poor countries may not even have enough to vaccinate their front line health workers, reported the BBC.

These wealthy nations only comprise 14% of the world’s population, which will leave much of the world unprotected. Canada is considered one of the worst offenders in this scenario, as they have bought enough vaccines to vaccinate each Canadian five times. The U.S. has deals with vaccine makers that would give us over a billion doses, more than 3 times enough to vaccinate the entire population. Meanwhile, South Africa expects to be able to vaccinate only 3% of its population in the first half of 2021.

The inequity in vaccine distribution is also especially stark in Israel and occupied Palestine. While the Israeli state has gotten a lot of accolades for “leading the world in vaccinations,” they have completely withheld vaccination from Palestinians. International health officials are calling this cruel and unusual decision “medical apartheid.” What Israel is doing here isn’t just inhumane, it’s also illegal. “Israel actually is violating international law because it is denying its responsibility as an occupying power,” Mustafa Barghouti, a physician and member of the Palestinian Parliament, told Democracy Now.

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Yet another way we’re seeing vaccine nationalism is extortion resulting from nations selling the vaccine to other nations, says Smith. This is disaster capitalism at its finest. Because rich nations have already pre-purchased the bulk of vaccines, everyone else will have to buy from them. According to a study in the medical journal BMJ, this means that a quarter of the world may have to wait until 2022 to get a vaccine.

This put-on-your-own-oxygen-mask first approach to vaccination may seem to make some kind of entitled sense, but scratch the surface and the logic falls apart. “People think that more vaccines for a particular nation means a quicker return to normal for that nation,” Smith explains. However, he tells Mic, most nations don’t have the infrastructure to effectively distribute vaccines — it U.S. — and are being thwarted by their own inefficiencies. “Even if nations do achieve a short-term advantage, the cost to other nations will create slower control of the virus, as well as a more sluggish global economic recovery. Nations’ public health and economic futures are too interwoven for any short-sighted nationalist strategy to work.”

The ramifications of vaccine nationalism could be deadly on a scale that we cannot yet imagine. “SARS CoV-2 obviously does not understand our socially constructed nation states,” Smith explains. “Any approach that is driven by political or economic goals is not going to be as effective as a science-based strategy. When you consider how contagious this virus is, and how deadly it is for certain groups of people, and the fact that there are nearly 8 billion people in the world, a less effective approach means millions of people unnecessarily getting sick and dying. Of course, these millions will be concentrated in the least economically powerful nations.”

The infections, illnesses, and deaths that result from vaccine nationalism will be concentrated in less economically powerful nations, but they aren’t going to be limited to them. “We are amidst a global pandemic, in an age of globalism, which requires global strategies to beat the virus,” Smith says. “Nationalism will come back to bite nations because unless we defeat the virus on a global scale, all nations will have an influx of the virus into their populations, creating unnecessary illness and death.” In other words, while rich nations are always able to get away with being selfish af, this is not the time for it and their inability to think globally is going to hurt all of us.