If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that we should not give a final assessment of policies before the finish line: it ain’t over till it is over, writes Tom Casier, Director of the Global Europe Centre at the University of Kent.
Ever since Covid-19 vaccines became available, there has been an obsession with the speed of national vaccination campaigns. Ivan Krastev spoke of a ‘dictatorship of comparisons’, whereby media continuously measure and compare how their governments are performing. The focus in these comparisons is usually on the best performers. At this stage all of those are non-EU countries: Israel, the UK, Chile and the United States, as well as some smaller states. While some EU member states are doing well (Malta and Hungary in particular), most other countries of the EU-27 are lagging behind. This led to considerable critique and talk of an EU vaccine crisis. So, did the EU drop the ball with its vaccination strategy? For sure, the EU’s record in the Covid-19 pandemic is far from flawless. At the beginning of the pandemic the EU was notoriously late in recognising the gravity of the situation and expressing tangible solidarity with badly hit Italy. To some extent the Union tried to make up for that by in getting a recovery package accepted, the biggest ever financed through the EU’s budget. Later it did so by taking the lead in negotiations on the purchase of vaccines with pharmaceutical companies.
The EU was probably efficient in getting good prices for the vaccines, but failed to get solid guarantees on fast deliveries. This slowed down the initial stage of the vaccination campaign considerably. The reactions from Brussels were sometimes panicky, threatening for example an export ban on vaccines. The EU blocked effectively only one shipment of 250,000 vaccines to Australia and did eventually resort to pressure on vaccine producers to prioritise deliveries to EU member states. As a result, vaccination campaigns speeded up.
There are for sure mitigating circumstances for the EU’s mixed record in the pandemic, not least the limited competencies the EU has in the field of public health, that is still predominantly the domain of national governments. The EU was propelled into a much more important role in public health than could have been expected on the basis of the treaties. It has struggled in this new role, but it has added value as well: the question remains whether individual, and in particular the smaller, EU member states would have been able to negotiate faster and more secure deliveries on their own.
How big is the impact of what some have dubbed the EU’s vaccine crisis? First of all, now that the vaccination campaigns have gained speed all over Europe, the difference with the best pupils in the class needs to be put in perspective. Likely, the gap between the conclusion of vaccination campaigns in the EU and the UK at the finish line will be a matter of weeks, at most months. That is a lot at a time when the population is waiting impatiently to get a jab, but relatively quickly forgotten once the campaign is over. Yet, the EU may have lost a lot of credit, in particular because of the broad perception that it suffered from slow, bureaucratic decision-making. How much that will stick, will depend on other factors, not least economic recovery after the pandemic.
The real vaccination gap is not that between the UK and the EU. It is elsewhere. It is in the highly unequal distribution of vaccines over the world, whereby richer countries have far better access to Covid-19 vaccines than poorer countries, of which most are still at very low vaccination levels. The COVAX programme (co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, Gavi and the World Health Organization) seeks to create equitable and fair access to Covid vaccines for all countries in the world. Because of funding issues and because several countries have secured rights of advance purchase, the success of COVAX has so far been underwhelming to say the least. Early April 2021 only 38 million vaccines had been delivered to 98 countries under the COVAX programme. This is less than the number of doses administered in the UK alone and about double of those in Germany. Many low-income countries may not see their populations vaccinated before 2023. Referring to the gap between rich and poor countries the World Health Organization referred to this unequal vaccination policies as a ‘catastrophic moral failure’. Apart from being a moral failure, it means it will take a long time to obtain global immunity. Many experts have warned that countries with low vaccination rates may form fertile grounds for virus mutations for which current vaccines may be inadequate. As WHO Director-General Ghebreyesus and European Commission President von der Leyen put it in a joint text: ‘none of us will be safe until everyone is safe’. Vaccine nationalism is thus not the way to go. While the pressure on decision-makers is tremendous, competition over access to vaccines does not serve our long term collective interest. Moreover, protectionist measures such as export bans risk to backfire, as many vaccines are produced in international production processes.
Have Covid-19 vaccines become instruments of power politics, as often claimed? Well, for sure they have been used for PR purposes. For Boris Johnson a rapid vaccination campaign was a way to showcase that Brexit was beneficial and the UK was more effective tackling issues on its own (obfuscating the poor track record of the UK in handling the pandemic). This increased the pressure on the EU to catch up and to show that it was on top of things. More than once, the rush did not lead to the most fortunate decisions.
Russia, in turn, invested a lot in promoting its Sputnik V vaccine, after it had initially not been taken seriously in the West. Today 1.2 billion doses have been pre-ordered from Russia, destined for 40 countries, many of which in Africa, Asia and Latin-America. Also EU member states like Hungary and Slovakia have signed up for the Sputnik vaccine, awaiting approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA).
The geopolitical effects of vaccines should definitely not be exaggerated. Though delivering vaccines is a way to smoothen bilateral relations and to promote one’s country, it is unlikely that vaccines will buy durable influence. This is even more the case in a context where there is a wide variety of vaccines on the market. Using the vaccines for promotion purposes may also backfire. Questions have been raised about Russia’s ability to deliver all the promised vaccines on time. It may have overplayed its hand and is expected to have vaccinated less than half of its own population by the end of 2021.
In the same way as countries seek to use vaccines for promotion purposes, inefficient policies may affect the reputation of states negatively. Whereas EU citizens may be preoccupied with (initially) slow vaccination and may hold inert bureaucratic decision-making in Brussels accountable for that, the EU may have suffered a different sort of reputational damage in the rest of the world. For an actor that likes to present itself as a normative power, vaccine rivalry has not left the impression that norms of global solidarity come first in crisis situations. For a promoter of liberal trade, the threat with export bans is not necessary enhancing credibility.
The challenge of the current pandemic is to tackle a common problem of mankind through cooperation rather than through vaccine nationalism. In a global pandemic, where massive amounts of vaccines are urgently needed in the interest of mankind, vaccines should stay out of the geopolitical games of the day.
But things move fast in the pandemic and surprises are the new normal. Let us only remember how several analysts forecast in early 2020 that the pandemic would undermine and reverse China’s economic growth. When the pandemic hit Europe and the US really badly a few months later, it became clear that their economies would suffer much more, while China was already on its way to recovery. Similar unexpected developments determine vaccination strategies. If the pandemic has taught us one thing, it is that we should not give a final assessment of policies before the finish line: it ain’t over till it is over.