Labour must push for international vaccine equity at June’s G7 summit. Nationalism protects no one.
I cannot wait to have my vaccine. I see that needle as a ticket back to the dancefloor, or more realistically, the freedom to hug my friends and not risk killing them or their grandmas. AstraZeneca and Pfizer are the two new leading ladies of my lockdown dreams (alongside old stalwarts Chris Whitty and Joe Wickes). I really want it.
But I grapple with myself. As a 30-year-old with no pre-existing health conditions, living in the fifth wealthiest nation on earth, do I actually need it? And, when I do get it, am I depriving it from someone who does?
Recent findings from Oxford’s Our World in Data institute found that 130 countries in the world have not received a single dose of any vaccine. By contrast, 10 countries have administered 75% of all Covid-19 vaccines. Britain and other G7 countries, have over-ordered vaccines to immunise their populations at least twice over.
Whilst we sit in our living rooms on Zoom, delighted that the weather has broken or the rule of six might re-emerge before Easter, the world’s most marginalised wait, and suffer. Yemen is on the brink of the worst famine in decades. Destitute Venezuelan migrants continue to seek refuge in Colombia. Reliant on imported food, Malawi’s undernourished population starves.
Vulnerable people and frontline healthcare workers in the world’s poorest nations face the biggest risks from COVID. But the longer that poorer economies suffer lockdowns, the more likely their people face economic hardship. The World Bank estimates that 150 million people worldwide will be plunged into extreme poverty in 2021. Time matters.
Whilst steps are being taken in the right direction, more needs to be done and a debate needs to be had about global prioritisation and vaccine equity. G7 countries, led by President Biden’s example, are donating billions more to the Covax and Act Accelerator funds. Our government’s announcement last week that the UK will donate our surplus to the poorest countries is of course welcome.
But is this enough? The new Head of the World Trade Organisation, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, argues that flaws in the international trading system create barriers for poorer countries to import and manufacture at home, amidst a climate of global protectionism and intellectual property disputes.
She also says, crucially, that in addition to facilitating vaccine trade, developed countries have a duty to donate their surpluses now. In reality, this means before vaccinating the young in richer countries, prioritising vaccine rollout to high-risk groups and frontline workers in poorer countries.
But this is clearly politically difficult. The government has already shown in dropping its commitment to the 0.7% GDP target ring-fenced for aid funding that a Britain-first approach can prevail in a time of national crisis. Labour is in a similar bind. Whilst we pride ourselves on values of fairness and internationalism, we struggle when these domestic trade-offs might be needed. It could be hard to convince a 40-year-old in Workington that someone in another country should get the jab before them.
But even if the moral arguments seem difficult, economic and health ones might resonate. It is in our self-interest to make global vaccine equity a priority. It makes epidemiological sense to vaccinate high-risk people everywhere. Why allow the virus to mutate at pace in countries with poorer health systems, coming back to the UK with a new variant that doesn’t respond to current drugs or vaccines?
And in a globalised world, it makes economic sense too. We cannot return to the trade and international exchange which will determine our future success as a nation if there is a global imbalance in the lockdowns. Indeed, the International Chamber of Commerce argues that the world will lose $9 trillion in GDP if poorer countries are not vaccinated when wealthier neighbours are. Half of that $9 trillion will be borne by the richest countries in lost economic opportunity. As Britain seeks to develop new partnerships in the post-Brexit era, this is needed now more than ever.
Ahead of the G7 in June Labour should push the government to show true global leadership on vaccine equity. There are four things it could do:
Call on the government to use its G7 presidency to speed up vaccine donations now from all members.
Push the government to ensure the G7 and G20 continue to support the Covax and Act accelerator programmes, so that tests, treatments, and vaccines can get out to the rest of the world.
Ensure the government works with the WHO and the UN system to support the delivery of vital supplies to high-risk populations.
Support longer term priorities. Call on G7 leaders to remove barriers to the development of pharma manufacturing capabilities in developing markets. Wider health partnerships must also be strengthened with developing economies to prevent future pandemics.
The vaccine question highlights issues of fairness of solidarity, key tenets of what it means to be Labour. Young people should also get behind the movement to donate now, recognising our responsibilities to not just to the world, but to our own country’s prosperity.
And as for me, if it means waiting bit longer to hug my friends in a nightclub, so be it.
Rishi Patel is Secretary of the Labour Foreign Policy Group. He is a political and international affairs adviser worried about nationalism in an interconnected world and the joylessness of some politicians. A grandchild of empire he is interested in what it really means to be British. Social media anxious, follow his retweets at @Rishi175