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30 July, 2021updated 01 Nov 2021 10:26

Richard Gardham

Opinion: Globalisation has saved the world. Now it must repeat the trick.

Globalisation may have played a pivotal role in bringing the world several effective Covid-19 vaccines, but a lopsided distribution will only prove its critics right.

covid-vaccine-globalisation

A health worker fills a syringe with a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Kenya, but low-income countries have struggled to access the quantities of the jabs that are present in the developed world. (Photo by Simon Maina/AFP via Getty Images)

The Covid-19 pandemic has thrown up an odd collection of heroes over the past year and a bit. In the UK, we have had Captain Tom Moore, William Shakespeare (no, not that one), Marcus Rashford and, of course, the NHS staff. In the US, there has been Dolly Parton (yes, that one), Greg Dailey and its own army of frontline health workers.

One hero that is less feted, however, is not a person but a concept, and it is a concept that has taken a thorough kicking over the past few years. Yes, the rapid and successful production of an effective vaccine against Covid-19 owes a pretty big debt to good old globalisation.

The bogeyman that is globalisation played a key role in bringing the world several effective vaccines within a year of the Covid-19 pandemic being declared by the World Health Organisation. Even taking into account the advances in science and medicine that we enjoy in the 21st century, that is some going.

The global effort behind vaccines’ knockout jab

Let’s take the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for starters. That is Pfizer, headquartered in New York, and BioNTech, a German company founded in 2008 by three people, one born in Turkey, another born in Austria, and another born in Germany but of Turkish descent. The two companies had been working on an influenza vaccine but quickly made the switch to Covid-19 in early 2020.

No approved vaccine had entered a vein, and we have already involved at least 15 countries working together. See where this is going?

The BioNTech scientists worked on the vaccines, and Pfizer began using its international contacts and supply chains to prepare a manufacturing process and purchase masses of the materials needed to produce the vial, which involved companies such as Corning, which produces the needed Valor Glass at its ten research and development sites dotted across the world. After the first vaccines were produced, the trials started in the US, Germany, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil and Argentina. No approved vaccine had entered a vein, and we have already involved at least 15 countries working together. See where this is going?

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This kind of globalised, collaborative spirit was repeated elsewhere. AstraZeneca was founded by the merger of Swedish and British companies in 1999. Its vaccine, produced in collaboration with Oxford University and made not-for-profit thanks to the involvement of the UK government, was the result of R&D, trials and production that involved a similar number of countries to those involved in the Pfizer vaccine. This story is repeated for Moderna, for Johnson & Johnson, for Novavax. Global efforts, everywhere you look in the fight against this virus. Hooray for globalisation! Take that, Trump! Boo to you, Bolsonaro!

So far, so good (if you are in the developed world)

Those of you irritated by tautology will have no doubt rolled your eyes over the past year at the needless use of the world ‘global’ before pandemic. For a grammar nerd such as myself, it is up there with those who declare a ‘free’ gift, ‘close’ proximity or a ‘work’ colleague. Pandemics are, by their very nature, global, and no country can fully isolate itself. Even if your country is ‘Covid-free’ your neighbours will not be. That is how ‘global’ pandemics work. On top of this, the virus will be affecting your imports, closing your airports, destroying your tourism industry.

The US gets to play the benevolent superpower while India plays the role of the disorganised, grateful charity case. Plus ça change.

This didn’t stop some British scientists in April from trying to claim that the UK was no longer in a pandemic. Unless the UK had somehow unmoored itself from the Earth and made it to the Moon, this was impossible (although given how much more isolationist the UK seems to get with every passing election or referendum, we shouldn’t totally rule out this possibility). National efforts are important, and a successful vaccine roll-out may bump you up a few points in the opinion polls, but real leadership involves viewing a much, much bigger picture than that which ends at your country’s borders.

The UK and US have indulged in varying levels of vaccine protectionism over the course of 2021, allowing barely any doses to leave their shores until the whole of their adult populations had been offered shots. The UK press was filled with front pages boasting about the speed of the country’s vaccine roll-out when compared with the EU’s slower take off (then complaining when their holidays to Spain and Italy couldn’t go ahead), while Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government never missed an opportunity to crowbar their ‘world-beating’ vaccine strategy into any debate or conversation.

Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden indulged in a nice bit of PR in May by committing to send 60 million shots of the AstraZeneca vaccine to India to in an attempt to help alleviate the horrendous situation the country found itself in with the virus. This sounds generous, but when put into a wider context, not so much. A paltry three million of the first 268 million vaccines produced within the US went to other countries, while 66 million of the first 196 million produced in India went overseas. The US then donates 60 million shots, bringing it up to par with India, and gets to play the benevolent superpower while India plays the role of the disorganised, grateful charity case. Plus ça change.

The chart above offers a stark illustration of whose arms the vaccines are going in. Developed countries have, perhaps predictably, ensured that their own populations come first before thinking about the rest of the world. Call it populism, call it vaccine nationalism, call it inevitable, call it what you want, but it is short-sighted. As stated above, pandemics are global, and a global response is the only response that will have any sort of impact.

But, you may ask, what about the Covax initiative, a programme by Western governments aiming to help deliver 1.3 billion doses to 92 developing countries this year? That is great, but the People's Vaccine Alliance has stated that 90% of people in the 67 lowest-income countries in the world are likely to miss out on a jab in 2021 as the initiative falters due to a shortage of doses. If this prediction is realised, then Covax will have only served to demonstrate that the developing world falls within the second-class citizen category.

The UK attempted to alleviate this situation in late July by pledging to send nine million vaccines to poorer countries, independent of Covax. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said: “The UK is sending nine million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, the first batch of the 100 million doses we have pledged, to get the most vulnerable parts of the world vaccinated as a matter of urgency." First, this situation was urgent months ago. Acting now is not treating the issue as "a matter of urgency". Second, if the UK was genuinely concerned about the "most vulnerable parts of the world", it could perhaps stop being a prominent voice in blocking efforts to waive intellectual property on Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.

Think global, act global

The developed world still has a chance to show that all its rhetoric about building a better world, about committing to climate pledges and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), actually carries some weight. Only a global vaccine effort can bring a normality to the world. An individual country's effective roll-out will be rendered meaningless if its neighbours are struggling, performing the role of petri-dish for evermore virulent strains of Covid.

If the vaccine roll-out shows that globalisation essentially confirms ‘looking after the well-off bits of the globe’, then the criticisms thrown at it will be completely warranted.

Globalisation gave the world an effective vaccine in impressive time. It must now show that globalisation works for everyone, from the richest of the rich in developed countries to the poorest of the poor in rural Africa and Asia. Because if the vaccine roll-out shows that globalisation essentially means ‘looking after the well-off bits of the globe’, then the criticisms thrown at it will be completely warranted. Take a bow, Trump! Bully for you, Bolsonaro!

It will also send a wider message: that the developed world will pay lip service to initiatives such as the SDGs but ultimately, as long as all is fine within their own countries, its leaders will brush a few crumbs off the plate towards those in need every now and then to garner some positive press, but will rarely go beyond the bare minimum required (see the UK's recent cuts to foreign aid for evidence of this). If we apply this approach to climate change, does this response show that the West will only take meaningful action when London or New York or Berlin are under several feet of water?

At its best, over the past few decades, globalisation has brought jobs, capital, skills and infrastructure to the poorest parts of the world. At its worst, it has exploited these regions, taken advantage of the cheap labour found there, created pollution, indulged corruption and turned a blind eye to human rights abuses.

Seeing the ‘good’ side of globalisation has never been more important. If the world gets a taste for truly global action to better the lives of the whole of its population, well, those 2030 SDG targets don’t seem so unachievable, the carbon emissions promises suddenly seem a little less empty, 'building back better' becomes a reality rather than an empty piece of political jargon. Inflection points are mostly identified in retrospect, when its too late to take any meaningful action. We are at an inflection point now, and the response to containing Covid-19 on a global level could feed into so much else. Globalisation can work for the whole globe. Its proponents must make sure that this happens by ensuring that low-income countries have equal access to Covid-19 vaccines.

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