The COVID-19 pandemic has probably caused the greatest economic, political and social damage to humanity since World War II. In fact, it will accelerate and deepen some of the pre-existing processes and trends and will confront us with new challenges and scenarios at the global level, the scope of which we barely glimpse.
However, at the international level, possibly the first - and most obvious - victim of the pandemic has been international cooperation and its ability to provide global public goods. Particularly in a world characterized by inequalities between the planet's inhabitants and between nations. The pandemic has generated a global public health crisis that shakes our lives, showing not only our great vulnerability but also the deficiencies of a system that affects both individuals and nations.
Latin America and the Caribbean is the developing region most affected by the pandemic. It represents 8.4% of the world's population but accounts for 30% of deaths from COVID-19. It suffers the worst contraction of GDP in 120 years, with a fall of 7.7% in 2020 while the pandemic has caused the closure of 2.7 million companies (that is, 19% of all Latin American companies), with a dramatic destruction of jobs that mainly affects young people and women and with a drastic drop in trade, foreign investment and remittances. The region is the most indebted in the developing world (79% of GDP) and with the highest external debt service in relation to exports of goods and services (57%).
As a consequence of this deterioration of Latin American economies, inequality and poverty have increased. While in previous years, the region had managed to reduce poverty from 45.2% of the population in 2001 to 30.3% in 2019, under the impact of the pandemic, the number of poor will increase by 28, 7 million people, reaching the figure of 214.4 million, so that, according to a 2020 ECLAC report, the number of poor will exceed 33% of the total population. In general terms, as the same report points out, the impact of the pandemic in the region has been brutal and has magnified the structural gaps in terms of inequality, particularly affecting the most vulnerable sectors of society.
ECLAC Executive Secretary Alicia Bárcena points out, consequently, that sustainable recovery with equality requires equitable access to vaccines, greater liquidity of resources and reforms in the international financial architecture.
But the world in general is facing an unequal pandemic, spread and amplified by social inequality that requires a thorough understanding not only of the deep structural causes that in each society have led to this unequal impact, but also of the diverse effects of the transition currently experienced by the international system.
The inequality that - with all its heterogeneity and diversity -, characterizes Latin America and favors the spread of the pandemic due to the lack of medical supplies and vaccines it is not an exclusive particularity of the region. The inequality between nations worldwide in their access to these elements also marks the current global dynamics, particularly between the richest nations and the developing countries. Vaccine nationalism is emerging in the most powerful nations that stockpile vaccines and medical supplies in excess of their needs, exacerbating vaccine shortages among marginalized nations and the gap between the developed world and developing nations. Rich countries have 14 percent of the world's population, but have bought more than half of the vaccine doses available for commercialization, according to the People's Vaccine Alliance, an international coalition of humanitarian and health organizations.
As a recent article in the Washington Post points out - while for April 2021, India announces the sad record of being the country with the most daily infections of coronavirus in the world, with only 1.4% of its population vaccinated and the hospitals overwhelmed and short of oxygen, in the United States one in four Americans has already received a full vaccination and more than 40% have already received at least one first dose. To such an extent that one of the large hospitals in Miami announced that it will slow down the vaccination rate because demand is falling and they have excess vaccines in stock. The lack of equity becomes more revealing with the flow of visitors with greater economic resources flying from Colombia, Brazil, Argentina and other countries to Miami to get vaccinated.
Within this framework, given the shortage of vaccines in Latin America due to insufficient production and the hoarding of rich countries, the “geopolitics of vaccines” are being carved. In a region ravaged by inequality and the lack of health resources, a "vaccine diplomacy" by external powers has generated a stampede to provide a global public good that helps developing the "soft power" of some nations, while the countries that are richer focus in their own vaccination and vaccine production processes, and in defending the intellectual property rights of large pharmaceutical corporations that make vaccines expensive and less accessible for the governments of the Global South.
Attempts by the World Health Organization (WHO) to promote the COVAX fund of vaccines for less developed countries collide with this concentration in developed countries, within the context of a global shortage and limited availability of vaccines. In fact, two BRICS member countries - India and South Africa - have asked the WHO for the temporary suspension of intellectual property rights related to vaccines to treat COVID-19. However, the vacuum left by the Western powers and some large pharmaceutical corporations in assisting the region is filled by the growing presence and influence of Russia and China and even India - currently plunged into a health catastrophe. A fact that marks the growing weight of Eurasia in the process of displacement of world economic dynamism and of influence and political projection from the West to the East.
Russia was the first to announce the production of Sputnik V in August 2020 and shortly afterwards began a successful campaign to supply this vaccine not only to the Southern Cone countries but also in Central America, even before the vaccine received international validation. China followed suit with the placement of the Sinopharma and Sinovac vaccines in South American countries.
The United States, as a hegemonic power, considers that Russia and China represent a threat to its supremacy. What is new now is that this threat reached the Western Hemisphere. The presidency of Joe Biden will surely bring in the medium term a new discourse for Latin America and the Caribbean different from that of Donald Trump and his Republican officials. However, senior US officials visiting the region openly express concern about the Russian and Chinese presence in a tone reminiscent of the Cold War. The pandemic added a new concern, which they now define as "health diplomacy", driven by Russia, China and Cuba. Craig Faller, head of the U.S. Southern Command suggests, somewhat belatedly, that for humanitarian and strategic reasons, the US has to assume leadership to vaccinate the Americas, because Russia and China seek to displace Washington's influence by sending vaccines and medical supplies.
However, for the moment, the geopolitical battle for vaccines and other medical resources in Latin America appears to be still being won by the Eurasian powers.
But inequalities persist - both within Latin American societies and within the framework of the international system - while, paraphrasing von Clausewitz, global public health seems to become the continuation of politics by other means. As one analyst points out, beyond the inequalities, the vaccine war is an example of how governments can have an “unhealthy” behavior.