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COVID Complaints and the Issue of Soft Power

As an outfit tracking the Africa-China aspect of COVID-19 since its outbreak, we were aware from early on that the pandemic has laid down a new track in a global geopolitical race. So it’s very interesting to see more commentators in the Global North slowly waking up to the reality that providing the world with vaccines and PPE has been a competition all along, and that China is winning.
 
The resultant discussions about how China uses vaccine diplomacy as a soft power tool come with an air of aggrieved surprise. Many of these commentators seem unaware of how China is combining decades of medical volunteerism in areas like Africa with the global distribution muscle built through years of producing and shipping many of the products that stock any given big box store anywhere on earth.
 
This sense of surprise is shot through with the reality that large swathes of the rich Global North are not accustomed to thinking about how the world perceives them at all. Beyond the vague assumption that the world’s rich democracies are popular because they do things like promote democracy and set norms, few citizens are ever forced to face their home countries’ international image.
 
So thinking about it now is akin to exercising an atrophied muscle. We get insights like: “It will soon become hard to escape the conclusion that the U.S. is hoarding vaccines. Much the same is true for the U.K., European Union, and Canada. Even making allowances for prudence, the stockpiles seem excessive.”
 
“Soon”? I hate to sound negative, but that ship has sailed. The vaccine hoarding can no longer realistically be seen as an aberration. It comes after years of America First-ism, the migration crisis and its resultant nightmares in LesbosNauruCalais, and Carrizo Springs, Texas, and the way Global North norm-setters have allowed the global mitigation of climate change to be hijacked by local corporate-funded culture wars.
 
So the fact that these countries are blocking the export of raw materials for vaccines and also refusing to relax the intellectual property laws that would allow global mass vaccination, even at the risk of making themselves more vulnerable to new COVID variants, doesn’t exactly make us gasp. It has become as normal as the constant stream of high-flown rhetoric from these countries about their global leadership – oh the norm-setting, the democracy-promotion! The two aren’t in tension – they’re a package deal.
 
What would be a lot more surprising is if the world’s rich industrialized democracies suddenly committed themselves to a real vision of the global public good. Just imagine a world in which these countries do the right thing simply because they can and because the rest of the world needs them to. Let’s not be pessimistic – they may still get there, and if sticking it to China provides an extra push, who are we to complain?
 
And that is the crux of the matter: exactly how much impact lies in complaints from the Global South? How much power does the Global South have to pierce the vague assumption that ‘they probably like us, right? More than China? Definitely more than Russia.’
 
COVID has given us the chance to find out. As a regular reader of this newsletter you can probably guess that this is a competition China has been prepping for.

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