Whether we will eventually get a vaccine isn’t in question. What is in question is who will have access to it, and when?
Experts are warning that some countries are tilting toward “vaccine nationalism” — a focus on competing to take care of their own populations first rather than sufficiently cooperating with the global community, especially poorer countries, to ensure equitable access to a coronavirus vaccine. Canada, which has pre-purchased nearly 300 million doses from a handful of vaccine candidates, could be headed in that direction.
Writing in the Atlantic in August, Alan Bernstein, president and chief executive of the Canada-based global research organization CIFAR and a member of the Canadian Covid-19 Vaccine Task Force, lauded international cooperation in researching a vaccine. He wrote that he was “optimistic that the world will have a safe and effective vaccine by the end of this year or early 2021.”
That is very good news. But “the world” doesn’t necessarily mean everyone, he cautioned. “I worry that people everywhere won’t have equal access to it,” he added.
As many observers have pointed out, once a vaccine is developed, billions of doses will be needed to administer it to everyone in the world. It’s not unlikely that the vaccine will require more than one shot. That’s going to cost us. Of course, there’s no alternative. States must pay to protect public health and prepare the way toward an eventual return to something like normal, saving countries billions in the long run.
Researchers Ronald Labonte, Katrina Plamondon, Mira Johri and Srinivas Murthy, writing in the Conversation last month, echoed Bernstein’s concern. They argued that Canada is part of “the premier league of the vaccine nationalists,” a small group of countries that have bought “more than half the world’s expected short-term supply of vaccines.”
Of course, the ultimate question of whether Canada is a vaccine nationalist — or to what extent — is not whether the country purchases doses or how many, but rather how many it supplies to its own citizens, compared with those around the world who might not otherwise have timely access to a vaccine — or any access at all.
Labonte and his co-writers argued that Canada should pledge at least as much internationally through the global COVAX effort — a vaccine research and distribution alliance — as it does domestically. They’re right. The dictates of justice and equity demand that the governments of the world work together to reduce harm, save lives and end the pandemic. So does raw self-interest.
In a recent recording for my podcast “Open to Debate,” Bernstein acknowledged the humanitarian necessity of wealthy nations making doses available for poorer ones. He also pointed out that, like it or not, we are all in this together until the end. “This pandemic will not be over until everyone is vaccinated,” he said. “If the virus is anywhere, it’s everywhere.”
On balance, the nature of the pandemic implies a clear, rational and just way forward — for wealthy countries to contribute what it takes to get the entire world vaccinated as soon as possible. “I don’t view it as an either/or decision, this tension between looking after one’s own country and contributing to a multilateral initiative,” Bernstein said. “Rich countries can do both, and rich countries should do both.”
As part of the international push, and despite — or perhaps because of — the lack of U.S. leadership, Canada should contribute more to the global effort to procure vaccine doses for poorer countries. Not only is it in the country’s own interest to stamp out the virus worldwide, but Canada has also long been the beneficiary of colonialism and exploitation abroad, from the founding of the state itself to ongoing exploitative extractive, productive and trade practices.
Canada’s perspective should not be “one for you, one for me,” but be scaled to ensure that the country is fully part of a concerted global effort to distribute the vaccine to every nation, regardless of whether it is rich or poor, in a timely manner. This effort must therefore include not only vaccine doses, but also the means by which to distribute and administer them wherever they are needed, for as long as they are needed.
The pandemic is a global affair. Now is not the time to imagine borders as barriers to a swift and full resolution of the pandemic once a vaccine or vaccines become available. This moment is a test of Canada’s commitment to a better, more equitable world.