“We are all in this together”, except that we are not. One of the most widely used slogans of the pandemic might need to be adjusted. Maybe: “We are all in this together, until there is a way out.”
The way out is the COVID-19 vaccine. Or more precisely, the many COVID-19 vaccines. The UK has already approved three, with two more pending a decision by the drugs regulator.
Of these, one has been developed in the UK by the University of Oxford, with millions of pounds of funding from the UK government (aka, UK taxpayers), and made by the British/Swedish company AstraZeneca. Part of its manufacturing is in Europe, where Belgian plants have had production problems that have threatened the future supply to the EU.
Three vaccines are produced by US pharmaceutical companies (Pfizer, Moderna and Novavax), although the Pfizer vaccine has been developed in partnership with the German biotechnology company BioNTech, and the Novavax one is being made in the UK. One vaccine is made by Janssen, based in Belgium but owned by the American firm, Johnson & Johnson.
These geographical details might seem superfluous, but they are already making post-Brexit vaccine distribution more complicated than it should be. In the meantime, the World Health Organization has expressed concerns over the fading commitment to Covax, the programme set up to guarantee equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines around the world.
This is the moment countries part ways in their fight against COVID-19. We are no longer in this together. That is because we never chose to be in it together. We just happened to find ourselves in a pandemic that didn’t spare anyone. Now that we do have some choice, each country is taking care of their own first.
According to vaccine nationalism, each nation should prioritise vaccinating their own people over giving vaccines to other countries struggling with supplies.
The UK has more availability than most other countries and a strong claim to keep the vaccines, considering the substantial contribution of UK taxpayers to research on the Oxford vaccine.
To date, the UK has vaccinated, with at least one dose, roughly as many people as all European countries together. And in most areas of England, more than 80% of people aged 80 or over and in care homes have received at least the first dose. Vaccination delays in other countries translate into lives lost. So once the UK has vaccinated its most vulnerable people, there is a question whether it should give some of its vaccines to other countries.
Governments have special responsibilities towards their own. Basic requirements of trust and fairness towards their own taxpayers justify some degree of vaccine nationalism.
However, these “special” responsibilities do not mean that countries only have responsibilities towards their own. The line between nationalism and mere selfishness is often thin, but it exists. This is why, for example, once countries have provided for the basic needs of their citizens, they often destine part of public money to foreign aid. Vaccines should be seen as a kind of foreign aid, for the same reasons.
But importantly, in this case, the divide between national interest and global interest might be less marked than the “nationalism” terminology suggests.
Prioritising vaccine distribution in the UK will serve the short-term goal of protecting the NHS. At the moment, this is realistically all the UK can aim for. And indeed, that is what the government has a moral obligation to do.
Yet this short-term goal does not significantly contribute to containing the pandemic. For that, we need a collective effort.
One important consideration is that the burdens of pandemic measures are mostly borne by young generations: they have more to lose and less to gain from restrictions, given the significantly lower risks of COVID-19 and the higher cost of restrictions for them, such as the risk of job redundancy.
Young generations’ interests are part of the longer-term interests that have so far been sacrificed, possibly unfairly, but towards which governments also have special obligations. Younger people are likely to benefit more from a quicker return to normality than from earlier vaccination for themselves.
Once the elderly and vulnerable have been vaccinated, the priority should be to restore economic activities, international trade and freedom of movement across national borders to protect the actual long-term interests of the young. This is what governments owe to young generations so far disproportionately burdened by restrictions.
In a globalised world, these medium-term to long-term interests require that other countries also satisfactorily contain the virus and return to normality. It is in the UK’s long-term national interest that as many other countries as possible keep the infection under control through vaccines.
Ensuring that vulnerable people in other countries are vaccinated before young people in the UK would better serve young British people’s long-term interests.
A return to some form of normality that is only national is not a return to normality at all. National and global interests, in the long term, will inevitably converge.
Alberto Giubilini receives funding from AHRC/UKRI and has previously received funding from the Wellcome Trust