Wednesday

21st Apr 2021

Column

'Leave Everyone Behind'? – The West's Covid nationalism

Working in the wider area of development and human rights, I often hear the slogan "Leave No One Behind".

It always leaves me uneasy. I am sceptical of moral absolutism, which usually does not survive contact with reality.

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  • If our generosity only starts once all willing EU-Europeans are vaccinated, other countries and the people who are most in need are in for a long wait

But I am surprised at how fast we are moving away from any semblance of equality on the issue of Covid-19 vaccination.

The EU is driving a hard "EU-first" policy and almost nobody talks about it. Maybe because there is a lot of sugar-coating put on a hard and ruthless policy.

First, the sweetener: The EU announcing that it contributes €1bn to the World Health Organization´s (WHO) COVAX facility, which will buy vaccines for low and medium-income countries. The German government declared a €1.5bn contribution to the same facility.

Worthy commitments, but beneath the coating is a bitter pill: many wealthy Western countries commit much money to COVAX, but they have ordered the lion's share of the global vaccine supply.

Excess percentages

According to a vaccine-deal tracker from the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, the EU and the US have bought or ordered more than 200 percent of their needs and the UK 350 percent.

Canada has ordered a whopping 500 percent more than it needs to jab every Canadian.

All this ordering may have some benefit, re-assuring companies that it is worthwhile to ramp up production.

I do not doubt that the EU and others will pass on their excess supply to countries that need them, but the issue in all this is timing.

There are too few vaccines right now, despite all the orders placed. If our generosity only starts once all willing EU-Europeans are vaccinated, other countries and the people who are most in need are in for a long wait.

It seems to me that we are really saying: "Leave no one behind – but only once we are safe". Joe Biden already confirmed that he sticks to an 'America First' approach to vaccination.

Canada's Justin Trudeau made clear that Canadians come first, trying to give it a positive spin: "if we have more vaccines than necessary, absolutely we will be sharing with the world".

The UK government also speaks of "excess doses" to be shipped abroad, making clear that for now it is 'Britain First'.

Chancellor Angela Merkel follows the same line: "Not a single German vaccination appointment" would be affected by the global vaccine drive, she claimed.

I understand the politics of caution, especially in the EU.

It is easy to forecast the tabloids yelling 'First they screwed up the vaccination start, and now they give them away to others' the moment actual vaccines – rather than funds – are handed to the WHO's facility.

Perhaps many leaders are simply waiting for more progress in vaccinations. When people feel better about the situation, they may be more generous.

But that's not good enough.

Who first?

As a society we cannot ignore the stark moral choices involved. It is strange to see so many bitter debates about smaller things and no real discussion about this big choice, which directly affects each of us and is a matter of life or death for some: who gets the vaccines first?

The dilemma is not difficult to explain: I don't belong to a risk group. Should I be vaccinated before a nurse in Ukraine or a doctor in Tunisia, only because I live in the EU?

I have a small risk of infection and otherwise the price I pay for non-vaccination is that I work from home more and my holidays are complicated.

Medical staff face a high risk of infection while they save lives every day. This is what we should be discussing. I think they should be first in the queue.

The fact that the EU has agreed on sharing vaccines among 27 member states independent of their wealth represents moral progress, but the thinking should not stop at the EU's borders.

The WHO is right in demanding that the EU donates actual vaccine doses to its COVAX programme right now.

President Emmanuel Macron has suggested that EU countries hand over five percent of available doses now and a higher share later. This would at least be a start.

Macron seems to be particularly concerned that China and Russia fill the gap in a soft power war of vaccines, including within the EU.

This is not an easy competition for democracies. Russia earns money and sympathy with exporting its Sputnik vaccines, while very slowly vaccinating Russians.

Democratic leaders don't have the freedom to ignore their own population. But that doesn't mean they cannot make a convincing case for sharing.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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