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Geopolitical hotspot: Tim Marshall's take on the geopolitics of the vaccine drive

EU Commissioner Margaritas Schinas EU Commissioner Margaritas Schinas
25 Mar
Tim Marshall, British journalist, author and broadcaster, shares his thoughts on the geopolitics of the current global vaccination drive 

From Russia with love? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Offered with love or not, Covid vaccinations that most Western countries have been unable, or unwilling, to deliver are still reaching people in developing countries.

Russian and Chinese motives for distributing, and sometimes donating, millions of doses of their vaccines around the globe aren’t benign. Moscow and Beijing recognise that we’re moving back into an age of great power politics and are using the pandemic to persuade countries that the future lies with them. But surely the more important short-term issue is saving lives. If two authoritarian powers gain an advantage, then so be it.

Both China and Russia make the dubious claim that by providing vaccines elsewhere, they are simultaneously protecting their own citizens. Most Western countries adopt a similar approach when defending their aid budgets, arguing that it’s all in the ‘national interest’ because monies spent increase so-called soft power. This isn’t dissimilar to Russia and China using their superb scientific facilities to further diplomatic aims.

Last summer, then US President Trump repeatedly talked about the ‘Chinese virus’ and continued with his ‘America First’ agenda. The EU spent the summer dithering. Meanwhile Russia and China were busy sounding out countries about their willingness to be helped. US and EU vaccine nationalism created the space for Russian and Chinese vaccine diplomacy. As of mid-March, China and Russia had each delivered tens of millions of vaccine doses to dozens of countries and pledged that hundreds of millions will follow. Both have played their cards well, but are far from the only ones in the game.

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This year, Serbia, an EU applicant state, had a choice. Wait for the Europeans to stop bickering and get a vaccine to Belgrade once they had helped their own citizens, wait for the World Health Organization’s Covax scheme (which has yet to provide doses to the Balkans), or take the sub-standard Chinese vaccine offered and start jabbing. It was a no brainer. President Vucic kissed the Chinese flag as the first supplies arrived and, as the Russian Sputnik vaccine followed, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, said: ‘For us, vaccination is not a geopolitical matter. It is a healthcare issue.’ Within weeks, 15 per cent of Serbia’s population had been vaccinated. Hungary’s Victor Orban quickly ordered millions of doses from Moscow in a move hardly designed to underpin EU unity.

Donor countries have employed different strategies. China has focused on Africa and Latin America, where it has huge investments, and, closer to home, on the countries it hopes to keep within its diplomatic orbit – or woo away from the USA. Cambodia, Nepal and Pakistan were early recipients.

India has responded. Despite a dreadful record of vaccinating its own population, New Delhi has distributed more than 30 million doses of its locally produced AstraZeneca vaccine (branded Covishield). Recipients include Nepal, with whom India has a poor relationship – an opportunity to try to improve relations and reduce the impact of China’s involvement. It also shipped the vaccine to Sri Lanka, where China leases a port; Bangladesh, leading to the opening of a trans-border railway link closed for 50 years; and even Myanmar, where it beat China to the jab.

Populations can have long collective memories of both positive and negative times. Yugoslavs recall the US airlift that supplied them when their nation broke with Stalin’s USSR; Germans remember the Berlin Airlift; Africa remembers colonialism. If and when Covid is ‘beaten’, who will people remember? It’s unlikely to be the WHO even if, ultimately, it distributes the most vaccine doses through the Covax initiative. It’s unlikely people will thank Pfizer, AstraZeneca,or Gamaleya (manufacturer of Sputnik). And unless there’s a rapid policy and PR change, it’s unlikely to be the European countries or the USA, even if they’ll provide most of the funds for the Covax programme.

If you’re in Belgrade, Bamako or Buenos Aires, you’ll remember that when you were in need, help came from China, Russia or India. Take AstraZeneca and India as an example. The drug was developed by the University of Oxford in collaboration with a UK–Swedish company. But much of it is manufactured in India, and when it leaves India – bound for places where some of the world’s poorest people live – on the side of the pallets being loaded into planes are the words ‘Gift from the people and government of India’.

Meanwhile, the WHO Covax programme, designed to deliver vaccines to developing countries, aims to deliver 150 million doses by the end of March, and two billion by the end of the year. Only another six billion to go then for 2021, 2022, 2023... Who you gonna call?

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