Vaccine diplomacy? Vaccine imperialism!

Vaccines as geopolitical tools

Sonja Grusch, SLP (ISA in Austria)

Soon it will be 200 million people around the globe that have been officially infected by Covid-19. More than 3 million have already died. With the increasing availability of vaccines there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. But everything happening around the vaccines is also showing, in the worst possible way, the limitations and deadly inefficiency of capitalism.

Extremely uneven distribution

The figures appear enormous: by the beginning of May, over 1.3 billion doses had been put into people’s arms. But if we look closer, it becomes clear how unevenly doses have been distributed. In the second half of April, the count was over 200 million doses in the US, around the same in China, 123 million in India, 111 million in the EU, 43 million in Britain, 35 million in Brazil (with around 211 million inhabitants), 13 million in Russia (that’s less than 1 in 10 people) and 10 million doses in Israel. The truth is that 95% of all vaccines were actually administered in only 10 countries. Only in 5 countries and territories have more than 50% of the population got 2 doses, namely Gibraltar, the Falklands, the Seychelles, St. Helena and Israel. By 9 May, around a third of the population in the US, a quarter of the population in Britain, and just above 10% in the EU had been fully vaccinated. In India, which is currently facing a deadly outbreak in cases, only 3% have been fully vaccinated. In Africa, it is much lower still.

But how does this go together with the high numbers of doses we read about in the media? The problem with these numbers is that most of the reports we get are not about vaccinations which have already been administered, but about deals made between companies and governments for future vaccinations. And those figures are highly uncertain due to new mutations, as well as problems of supply and production. Even in the long term, distribution is set to remain extremely unequal, with 16% of the world having secured 60% of the future supply of doses. All this shows the enormous power of Corona vaccines as an instrument in geopolitics.

Vaccine diplomacy? Vaccine imperialism!

When headlines speak of “vaccine diplomacy”, in reality this is a euphemism for vaccine imperialism with different features and effects. The deep economic crisis of capitalism has increased inter-imperialist tensions. There is nothing new about this form of imperialism, but Covid intensified previously existing processes, including the race for influence over regions and markets, the attempt to further the exploitation of the neocolonial countries and the increasing political instability within blocks and even within countries. The most obvious expression of this are the attempts of China, Russia and India to increase their influence in their respective ‘realms’ and internationally.

So far, China has sent or sold 114 million doses to 68 countries. This includes 9 out of 10 Asian countries which have been promised doses or have already received them. In Latin America, practically every country has contracts with China, except Suriname and French Guinea. In Africa, China has deals with at least 16 African countries. But these are not generous acts of solidarity. In many cases the first package of 100,000 or so doses were given as a gift, but the rest, essentially the vast majority, had to be bought. Another strategy is to give loans to countries to be able to buy Chinese vaccines — a long term investment to increase dependency!

China’s main rival in the region is India, which is also the world’s largest drug producer. India is producing Corona vaccines for AstraZeneca, but has also developed its own vaccines. So far, India has deals with 94 countries for 66 Million doses, which much like in the case of China are mainly for sale and not given as gifts. Among the bigger orders are those for the UK, Nigeria, Congo, Saudia Arabia, Morocco, Brasil, Nepal and Bangladesh. India has launched the “Neighbourhood First” initiative, which is part of its battle with China for influence in the region. After the military clashes between these two countries in 2020, this battle is now also being fought with vaccines. India was quicker than China in Bangladesh,, in Cambodia and Afghanistan. In Sri Lanka and Nepal, China put its delivery on hold, and in Myanmar, China has promised 300.000 doses that were not delivered while India sent 1.7 Million doses.

Russia is another big player when it comes to vaccines. Putin talks about vaccine “collaboration” with 55 countries, covering 1.4 billion people and plans to expand this to cover 2.5 billion people. This involves deals for 100 million doses to India, 25 million to Egypt, 25 million to Nepal (which has 28 million inhabitants), 22 million to Argentina, 10 million to Brazil, 7.4 million to Mexico and 5.2 million to Bolivia. This list reflects a certain element of the old Cold War in the 20th century, as Russia is interfering in Latin America: the backyard of the US. Russia is also increasingly linking up with India, which the US also tries to ally with against China. But since Biden’s victory, the future of this relationship is not so clear, so Russia is using this window of opportunity. And the first doses of the Russian Sputnik vaccine have been administered in Iran, another area of conflict.

Who produces for whom?

Russia also has a deal with India for the production of 200 Million doses — but the question is: for whom will they be? All these vaccine exporting countries face the same problem: their own populations are poorly vaccinated. The Chinese regime promised to vaccinate 40% of its population by June, but there is no way they will reach that as they would need to double their current efforts! India has exported 3 times more doses than it has administered in the country itself — and now faces a nightmare scenario. Even according to official figures, less than 9% in Russia and less than 10% in India have got at least one shot, figures for China are also low but due to the character of the regime, even more difficult to verify.

This might be the reason for Russia announcing that most of the demand for Sputnik in foreign countries will be met by overseas production. This can be used to increase influence in the countries where it is produced. But putting geopolitical interests over domestic ones can lead to problems at home. The deal between Russia and India for 200 million doses might have been planned to be part of this production chain. But recently India has stopped the export of 2.4 million doses due to the devastating wave of the pandemic there. So while vaccination successes can strengthen regimes in the short term and even secure election victories like with Netanyahu or Boris Johnson, failures also have the potential to weaken regimes.

Vaccines Divide the EU

The race for vaccines increases not only inter-imperialist tensions, but also tensions within blocks and even within countries. The most apparent is the deepening crisis of the EU, which also impacts on the future of NATO. Both China and Russia have heavily intervened in Eastern and Central Eastern Europe in the last period. The EU’s failure to deliver enough vaccines in its member states gave China and Russia even more possibilities to step in. China has vaccine deals with Serbia, Hungary, Belarus, Bosnia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Ukraine. These deals lead to situations where Hungary, for example, has a vaccination rate which is double that of the EU. With Britain — after leaving the EU via Brexit, in a similar position — this of course poses the question: “are we better off without the EU?”

This situation strengthens EU-critical forces not only, but especially in the EU’s south-east and eastern countries. The Czech President Zeman pushed the weak Czech government, which recently provoked conflicts with China over a visit to Taiwan and blocking a nuclear power station, to order Chinese vaccines. The Polish President Duda is negotiating a vaccine deal with China, while the Polish Health Minister declares that Chinese vaccines are off limits. Serbia is the first country in Europe where Sputnik will actually be produced and the country has become famous for inviting citizens from the region to come and get vaccinated. Croatia, one of the most pro-EU countries in the Balkans, originally wanted to stick with the EU vaccine programme, but recently started negotiations with Russia. This situation is so worrying for the EU that it has promised to send up to 650,000 doses to the Balkan countries in the next 4 months.

Belarus and Ukraine received vaccines from Russia, even while Russia is threatening military intervention into Ukraine. At the same time, some EU countries flirt with the idea of ordering Sputnik. Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz thought about it and recently the Minister President of Bavaria, Markus Söder, from Angela Merkel’s-twin party CSU, ordered supplies of the Russian vaccine. These developments make a united EU policy in relation to possible military adventures by Russia less likely. But the EU is not only paralyzed in its foreign policy, the centrifugal forces within it are increasing as well.

This was reflected in the incident involving Ursula Von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, during a visit to Turkey. When Von der Leyen and EU president Charles Michel went to Turkey at the beginning of April, Erdogan snubbed Von der Leyen by placing her on a sofa away from himself and Charles Michel. Michel did not do anything to prevent it. This reflects deeper tensions in the EU. Charles Michel is from Belgium, one of the countries that are against any ban of vaccine exports from the EU and one of the countries where Covid vaccines are produced. Just some days later, former EU Chief Jean-Claude Juncker in Luxembourg rebuked Von der Leyen who had been considering such a ban on exports. This was followed by the European Union’s heads of state and governments deciding to withhold explicit approval for a ban on vaccine exports.

This reflects fears of a vaccine war, but even more so the interests of vaccine-producing (and exporting) countries like Belgium or Sweden. It also shows the weakness of the EU leadership as several countries ignore the European Medical Agency (EMA) and approve vaccines from China and Russia, on a purely national basis. The EU summit at the end of March also agreed to shift responsibility for the sharing out of vaccines away from a steering committee to the ambassadors of member states in Brussels. This step will increase the already existing tensions over vaccine distribution within the EU.

Token international reaction

Never before has it been so obvious that the world needs an international solution. As with the climate crisis, it is crystal clear that no solution can be found on a national basis. The latest developments around patents show that the ruling class is aware of these contradictions. Earlier in the year, there was a push within the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to suspend patents for Covid vaccines during the pandemic. This proposal was supported by over 100 countries plus 400 Organisations in the US, 115 from Europe and the African Union. This proposed ‘TRIPS’ agreement was rejected in the WTO by a handful of states protecting their pharmaceutical industries. Of the 10 biggest pharma companies, 3 are in the US, 2 in Britain, 2 in Switzerland, 1 in Germany, 1 in France, and 1 in China. The countries rejecting the patent suspensions were Britain, Switzerland, the US and the EU.

The extreme vaccine inequality is so obvious that the ruling class is torn apart over how to react. There is an understanding that Covid needs to be fought internationally and also fear about how the situation is viewed by youth and a working class that has an increasingly international outlook. This fear of a further growth of distrust of the ruling capitalist system and further rebellion against it lies behind Covax and the latest announcements of Biden and Putin in relation to patents on vaccines. It is still unclear if these patents — which are a barrier not only to people getting vaccines but also a barrier to science — really will be suspended but Biden and Putin reflect the general mood.

The same is true for the Covax initiative, which is more a propaganda move than a humanitarian one. The Covax initiative aims to give global access to Covid vaccines. It has the support of the WHO and the Gates foundation and 190 countries are part of it. But it is dependent on state and corporate donations. And because of this, it will fail: The EU decided to donate 1 billion Euro to Covax — peanuts in comparison to the amount of money used to secure the profits of private companies!

Covax’s target is to vaccinate 26% of people in the poorest countries by the end of this year. Even though this is far too low for any “herd immunity” to develop, we can still be sure that this target will not be met. What we might see in the second half of 2021 is a disgusting repetition of a cynical foreign aid: rich countries might send their “left over” doses (which may be already outdated and inadequate for new variants) to the countries of the neo colonial world and present this as generous help.

Political effects

Everything happening around vaccines can lead to explosive situations. The blocking of exports, the lack of raw materials, the hypocrisy of the rich countries, etc: all this can lead to protests with anti-imperialist features, against institutions like the WTO and other imperialist symbols. The future of the EU is being further put into question while governments increasingly turn towards nationalist “solutions” — in the field of economics as well as with vaccines. Tensions within governments and regimes and the ruling class more broadly, between a more far-sighted and a more narrow national approach will intensify. We could see revolts against governments who cannot deliver vaccines at home, especially those who export at the same time.

But while the ruling class needs to bend towards increased nationalism, this approach clashes with a working class and especially a young generation with a growing international outlook and perspective. This was seen in the climate movement and the BLM protests but also with the strong support around the world for various uprisings, such as those in Chile, Nigeria, Myanmar or Columbia. While the lack of vaccines makes people worried, a poll from February in the Netherlands indicated that 71% were against vaccine nationalism. At the end of 2020, 58% in Britain supported the idea of sending vaccines to health workers and elderly people in other countries even if not everyone in Britain was already vaccinated. And in a recent poll in the US, half of those questioned agree with Biden’s initiative to send vaccines abroad — and not for Biden’s imperialist reasons (support for this is of course stronger amongst Democrats and young people). A major international poll of 15,000 people in 13 of the richest countries show that 48–56% support the donation of vaccines to other countries while only a quarter or less reject this.

Bloomberg estimates that it will take 6.6 years to get 75% Covid immunity on a global level — and this does not take into account the impact of new variants, or unexpected problems in production and distribution. It is also very likely that we will need regular “booster shots”. This is a long term problem that the capitalist system and the various governments are incapable of solving.

As socialists, we are part of the struggles for the safe reopening of schools, for more staff and funding for healthcare and for the abolition of patents. We fight for a healthcare system and a pharmaceutical industry that is taken out of the hands of private business and is controlled and organised by those who really need it: working class people and the poor! Only a fundamental change in the way the economy is run — on the basis of needs, not profit, planned and controlled by the working class — can provide real solutions to our fundamental problems. Such a change is not easy to achieve — but it is the only real solution. And the various struggles taking place all over the globe are a good starting point for this necessary struggle. If you agree, then you should join the ranks of the International Socialist Alternative!