On vaccines, globalists are nationalists and nationalists are globalists

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The COVID-19 pandemic has either changed definitions of the terms globalists and nationalists or has brought out the real ones from the dark. 

In particular, countries in the global South are coming to a bitter realization that the U.S. nor the West can be counted upon during a time of crisis. One particular country that is thinking on those lines is a U.S. strategic partner in the Indo Pacific — India. In the past two weeks, the country has been battling the virus using all in its quivers. With case count averaging over 300,000 a day, its economy, physical and health infrastructure have all been put through the wringer.  

To slow the spread and control the virus, the Indian government has embarked on a massive vaccination drive of its billion plus population. To that end, it had been trying to source raw materials for the manufacture of vaccinations from the U.S. and Europe with little to no success. Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturing center, pleaded with the American president on Twitter — “Respected @POTUS, if we are to truly unite in beating this virus, on behalf of the vaccine industry outside the U.S., I humbly request you to lift the embargo of raw material exports out of the U.S. so that vaccine production can ramp up. Your administration has the details.” 

His desperate plea came at the backdrop of an acute shortage of oxygen, vaccines and Remdesivir, the drug used to treat COVID-19 patients with severe illness in several parts of India.  

While Poonawalla’s pleas come at this critical juncture in India’s battle with COVID-19, the Modi administration had been in talks with its American counterparts to remove the ban on export of raw materials required to manufacture vaccines over the past few weeks, when the case count was significantly lower. During that same time, several high ranking officials in the Modi administration also raised this issue with their American counterparts. However, none of these discussions had been fruitful with Biden’s use of the Defense Production Act, invoked in February working as a barrier, restricting exports of raw materials to boost their own domestic production. 

Interestingly, the Biden administration had a tone similar to his predecessor’s, with the State department’s spokesperson Ned Price telling a press conference that the “Biden administration’s priority is to meet the vaccine requirements of the American people,” signaling an “America first” policy when asked about India’s call to ease the export restrictions. 

After much deliberation, media scrutiny and under pressure the Biden administration finally decided to partially lift the ban and find alternative ways to support India.  

America’s protectionist turn is not unique; with many Western nations resorting to protectionism during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this year, Italy had stopped a consignment of vaccine shipments, several European nations had partially banned the export of vital raw materials for vaccines and, most significantly, Europe and America have been united in blocking the efforts of countries such as India and South Africa to ban COVID-19 vaccine patents, which would make vaccines more accessible to the developing world. And most recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel unleashed a veiled threat to India to switch manufacturing to a different location if it did not keep up its vaccine export numbers even while it was facing possibly its worst phase of the virus. 

The pandemic has been raging through the world for around a year and a half and has brought several otherwise resilient nations to their knees. It has revealed the fragile state of healthcare systems and infrastructure in both the developing world and in rich countries. While the virus does not discriminate between rich and poor, the hoarding of critical supplies by countries of the West clearly divides the world between rich and poor. 

The self proclaimed leaders of the liberal international order have proven to be the nationalists, at least with regards to vaccines, medicines and other critical supplies. And the routinely derided nationalists of the East have proven to be compassionate globalists — with China and India leading the way in vaccine diplomacy. 

Even during the peak of the crisis in 2020, China and India, both run by nationalists, have led the way in vaccinating the developing world.  So far, India has provided 58 million doses of vaccine to 71 nations, of which 8 million were sent as gifts. Of the 71 nations, 37 got the vaccine for free and over 50 percent of the least developed countries have received vaccines from India. China, on the other end, has transformed its flagship Belt and Road Initiative to address health challenges and has used the connectivity initiative to export vaccines to over 40 countries

Furthermore, India has supplied hydroxychloroquine, personal protective equipment and COVID testing kits to over 100 countries and China has sent medical teams across the world to assist with the treatment of COVID-19 patients. 

In a stark contrast to these efforts, developed countries including the U.S., Canada, U.K., Australia and EU members,  with 16 percent of the world’s population, have secured 60 percent of global vaccine supplies for themselves. Furthermore, billionaire philanthropists such as Bill Gates have lobbied and resisted any form of lifting patent protections on vaccines and other technologies. 

Once the tide settles, there will be a revaluation of intellectual property rights, World Trade Organization IP regulations such as TRIPS and, more importantly, of friendships and partnerships between countries. Even with the U.S. partially lifting the ban on exports, India’s bitter experience of having to rely on a partner that would only assist after weeks of deliberation, especially during a time of crisis would prove to be a lesson for countries of the developing world. 

As the old adage goes, crisis does not create character but reveals it. If and when the pandemic is over, countries of the world will be able to identify real friends and partners regardless of the self-anointed labels they might attach themselves — globalist or nationalist. 

Akhil Ramesh is a non-resident Vasey fellow at the Pacific Forum. He has worked with risk consulting firms, think tanks and in the blockchain industry in the United States, India and in the Philippines. His analysis has been published in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, Asia Times and the Jerusalem Post. Follow him on Twitter @akhil_oldsoul

Tags Biden; Joe Biden China COVID-19 COVID-19 vaccine Defense Production Act Deployment of COVID-19 vaccines India Vaccination Vaccine Vaccine diplomacy Vaccines

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