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Geopolitics and the Scramble for COVID-19 Vaccines

A health worker is innoculated with the Russian Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine at the Itaugua National Hospital in Itagua, Paraguay, on February 22, 2021. Norberto DUARTE / AFP

Paraguay, a landlocked country in South America, rarely makes global news headlines. However, images of protesters on the streets of the capital Asunción quickly circulated in international news this month. Protestors were pictured waving their national tricolour flag and holding anti-government posters with slogans such as ‘We are coming for you, Marito’. Marito refers to the President, Mario Abdo Benítez, and the protestors are calling for him to step down immediately.

The ruling right-wing party, the Partido Colorado, has been heavily criticized for its inability to secure enough vaccines to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. The protests, which were started by medical staff struggling to treat patients within an already fragile health system, quickly grew as frustrated citizens joined them on the streets of Asunción. Similar to African countries, Paraguay is yet another victim of unequal global vaccine distribution, watching on as richer countries follow an ‘us first them later’ vaccination strategy.

Rates of Vaccination in Paraguay

In a country of just over 7 million, only 0.2% of the population have received the first dose of the vaccine. Looking at its neighbour Uruguay, which has half the population of Paraguay, it has already received close to 2 million Sinovac vaccines from China and has vaccinated approximately 10% of its population. Paraguay has the third lowest rate of vaccination in Latin America, just above Honduras and Venezuela.

The number of vaccinations that Paraguay has managed to procure is extremely low. The country received 4,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine from Russia. Last month Chile, which has the best vaccination rates in Latin America, donated 20,000 doses of the Sinovac vaccine to Paraguay. On the 19th March, Paraguay received 36,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine as part of the World Health Organisation’s COVAX scheme. However, in a country of this size, these numbers are a mere drop in the ocean.

Now under serious pressure to secure vaccines, Paraguay needs to look elsewhere. Many of the world’s developing countries have turned to China for support, and Beijing has already delivered almost 40 million vaccines to Latin America and the Caribbean. There have been reports that the Paraguay-China Chamber of Commerce has reached out to China’s Health Ministry and has informed Benítez’s government of the availability of 14 million vaccines for the country. However, it has been reported that the Paraguayan Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Health are unwilling to enter into negotiations with Beijing. There is one main reason for this: Taiwan.

Paraguay-Taiwan Relations

Paraguay is one of the 15 countries worldwide that still maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Moreover, Paraguay is Taiwan’s only diplomatic ally left in South America. While some have argued that the status achieved by being one of Taiwan’s priorities has outweighed the economic losses of not aligning with China in recent years. the loss of economic benefits is proving especially painful during the COVID-19 pandemic.

eSwatini is the only country left on the African continent that has remained allied with Taiwan, despite increasing pressure from China to switch alliances to Beijing. It remains to be seen whether support from Taiwan and the COVAX scheme will be enough for eSwatini to weather this never-ending storm.

Words of Warning From the White House

Unsurprisingly, Paraguay-Taiwan relations are strongly supported by the United States. While the Monroe Doctrine was laid to rest during the Obama Presidency, former President Trump breathed new life into the doctrine. Trump saw Latin America almost exclusively through the lens of terrorism, migration corridors, drug trafficking, and competition with China. President Biden is now seeking to rebuild the fractured relationship and has asserted the US will no longer be the ‘bully dictating policy to smaller countries’.

Although no longer a ‘bully’, the US still continues to give Latin American countries friendly advice on their diplomatic ties. On the 14th March US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with President Benítez and encouraged the country to collaborate with Taiwan on its COVID-19 response. Blinken spoke of the need for good governance and freedom of expression in these times. While not mentioned explicitly, one only has to recall the recent heated talks between the US and China in Alaska to know that China was front of mind.  

Can Taiwan Help Paraguay?

For Paraguayans protesting in the streets of Asunción, Blinken’s words offer little consolation and probably won’t translate into vaccines arriving into Asunción airport. Much like their African counterparts, Latin Americans are growing increasingly weary of being told how to conduct their foreign relations and what is in their best interests, especially since the US itself hasn’t even been able to send vaccines to other countries yet.

Although Taiwan has vowed to help its South American ally, the Taiwanese Ministry of Health has denied rumours that it was sending vaccines to Paraguay, asserting that they do not have enough vaccines to ‘go round’.  

With presidential elections looming in 2023, there may very well be a rethinking of relations with Taiwan. For now, Paraguayans can only watch on as their neighbours across the continent receive much needed vaccines from China.

Geopolitics and Scramble for Vaccines

Will the US and Western countries be able to supply more vaccines to developing countries to counteract the progress made by China and Russia? Only time will tell.

The reality is that, developing countries do not have this time to waste and, while the US and Taiwan are providing rhetorical support to countries, China is providing much needed vaccines. As we have seen on the African continent over the past several decades, China is able to fill the void of decreased Western engagement and provide meaningful help to countries still walking the path to development.

If Taiwan wants to remain relevant in the scramble for vaccines, it needs to go beyond rhetorical support for its allies. In the meantime, China’s ability to provide economic support in these challenging times makes it an increasingly attractive, if not essential, partner for countries of the global south.

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