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China Benefits from the West’s Shortsighted Vaccine Policy

A nurse administers the Covid-19 vaccine to an elderly patient at the Dunkirk hospital on February 17, 2021. DENIS CHARLET / AFP

Focusing on China-Africa issues on a daily basis now means a daily dose of vaccine news (in lieu of an actual vaccine dose.)
 
This morning I gamely waded into a great new Slate explainer on the vaccine crisis, only to promptly lose my mind. The article outlined how rich countries aren’t only hoarding vaccines, but using deals with pharmaceutical companies to weaken the COVAX alliance and blocking the production of cheap generics to shield the profitability of pharmaceutical companies.
 
But what triggered me was a statistic halfway through: The United States has reserved 1.2 billion doses. For a population of 328 million. Considering that each person will get two shots, that still leaves hundreds of millions of doses left for what? To pour down the drain for kicks?

My first, kneejerk reaction was: wow – America is Ted Cruz, the country. (Sorry, American friends – you know I love you, but yikes.) But the United States isn’t the only one. For a population of 447 million, the EU reserved 1.8 billion doses.
 
The excess may well flow to the rest of the world once their populations have been inoculated, but so far that hasn’t been confirmed. These governments also seem uninterested in even token, fig leaf vaccine donations to poorer countries.
 
Instead there is a chorus of concern about Chinese and Russian vaccine rollouts to the Global South. Some of these worries resonate: there is indeed not enough data available about the efficacy of these vaccines. But it leaves out the obvious point that even if vaccines made by Western companies are better, the majority of the world can’t lay their hands on them anyway.
 
Instead of focusing on the global health crisis, many Western commentators are fretting that Beijing and Moscow are using vaccines to bolster their global influence. It’s an obvious point, but let’s say it anyway: there are many reasons why Global South governments are worried about Chinese and Russian influence-building in their countries, but they’re probably OK with it in this case because it’s a global pandemic and nobody else is sending vaccines.
 
This isn’t a rich country problem. It’s a Western problem. Compare the U.S. and EU’s vaccine-grubbing with Japan’s sane order of 314 million doses for its 126 million people. The West’s approach seems like stealing someone’s parking space and then flipping them the bird on your way into the mall.
 
In other words, it seems like something Donald Trump would do. It has the same smallness, and the same naïve disregard for how gestures resonate through the world, especially at a time when China is working overtime to present itself as an alternative.

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