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Vaccines Are the New Currency of Geopolitics

A nurse applies a dose of the vaccine developed by Sinopharm during a health workers vaccination campaign in Lima, Peru on February 19, 2021. Ernesto BENAVIDES / AFP

It looks like reality is starting to sink in among U.S. and European leaders that their unwillingness/inability to lead the global vaccine relief effort is going to generate some unpleasant outcomes. Sure, G7 leaders said all of the right things at last Friday’s virtual summit, where vaccine inequity was at the top of the agenda, but they also made it clear they’re not going to sacrifice one injection from their own constituents to help someone in Botswana or Laos.

Instead, they’re going to give money. Lots and lots of money. Covax, WHO, the GAVI Alliance and others will all soon be awash in cash but these rich countries are sorely mistaken if they think that just writing a few checks is going to change the optics of what’s happening here.

  • First, everyone knows that the root of the problem is rich countries hoarding vaccines at the expense of those less fortunate in the developing world. That is a moral failing that will haunt the U.S. and Europe for years to come, especially as they try to portray both China and Russia as unsavory partners to countries in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. 
  • Second, the Russians and Chinese have already shipped an estimated 800 million doses to almost 50 countries and, as the WSJ reported today, that number is expected to rise fast in the next few months. The new China-Ethiopian cold chain air bridge and sophisticated logistics network that’s now in place are far ahead of what any suppliers in the U.S. and Europe have come up with, according to Ethiopian Airlines officials.
  • Third, the failure of leadership by incumbents of the existing world order has created an unprecedented opportunity for rivals in Moscow and Beijing to reshape international norms and expectations. Already, we’re starting to see Chinese and Russian propaganda targeted at developing countries with the simple message of we were here when you needed help, they weren’t and there’s no reason to think that isn’t going to produce meaningful geopolitical dividends for both countries.

That said, it’s still too early to say that the Chinese and Russians have actually won this race. There’s still a lot that can go wrong between now and when the pandemic ends. Similarly, if the U.S. and Europe are able to get the outbreak under control at home and then turn their attention overseas, that too could change the outcome.

But with their reputation in tatters and lacking the infrastructure that will enable them to actually deliver, it’s going to be very difficult, if it’s even possible, for Washington and Brussels to catch up.

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