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COVID-19 and vaccine nationalism

Eniola (real name), was arguably the first individual to sensitise me to the nexus between Medicine and Politics. At that point in time, she was registered in the Graduate Programme of the famous Johns Hopkins University. Asked to do a literature review on health indices across the world, she forwarded to me, related literature. I subsequently found myself in the midst of a social science literature seemingly far removed from the therapeutic and curative world of medical science.

For me this was some form of eye opener about the connections between Medicine on one hand and International Relations on the other. The realisation of this inter-connection has also been brought into sharper relief by the linkage between COVID-19 and Geo-Politics. Perhaps the most obvious of this is the new phrase: Vaccine Nationalism.

VN has been drawn from two seemingly distinct disciplines: Medicine and Politics. For those who do not know, VN refers to a situation in which the government signs an agreement with pharmaceutical manufacturers to supply their own populations with vaccines ahead of the hapless populations from other countries.

Predictably, these various governments are located in rich countries like Britain, the United States, Japan and Europe. In the case of Britain, she was in fact having to contend with a luxury of choice among vaccines. Within a very short time, millions of her vulnerable people and front-line workers had been offered their first dose of either the Pfizer or Oxford AstraZeneca vaccines. Meanwhile, in the post-Trumpian era, the new president has prioritized a new vaccine programme for American citizens. Indeed, if the revelations of the British Medical Journal are anything to go by, the United States has secured 100 million doses of at least 6 varieties, with an option to buy about one billion more.

At one level, it is possible to contend that they have been able to solve their respective problems as far as Covid-19 is concerned. But this is only half of the story. It speaks essentially to their unilateral posture on the pandemic. We have to thank multilateral bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the WTO – led Okonjo-Iweala for raising the other and equally important aspect of the problems. On this note, it is important to pay some attention to the well-grounded concerns of the WHO. According to this body, these unilateral postures by the wealthy countries will ensure that the vaccines are inaccessible to vast populations in some of the poorest parts of the world. Going further, the WHO point man, Tedros Athenom Ghebereyesus also contended that given the insular posture of the wealthy countries, the implication is that the virus will continue to rage in the poorer countries of the world.

The inequality was shown up in quantitative terms when it was revealed that low income countries have access to only 0.2 percent of 700 million global doses. This is clearly not a sweet story; at least for those of us in this part of the world. As a student of International Relations however, I am not surprised by much of the foregoing. National interest is the kernel of international politics; you have to look after your own first.

But the contagious nature of the pandemic is such that, it is not enough to look after yourself alone. If you do, the pandemic will come calling again at your doorstep. In specific terms however, what are the Nigerian and African dimensions of this important issue.

As regards the latter, the situation is predictably dismal. No Vaccine. As usual, ours is a case of consumption; no production. Despite this, one African leader went as far as to say that her nationals should not partake in the vaccine consumption. That there is a sinister plot around it. Butcan beggars be choosers? However, there is a striking and positive exception to this continental malaise.

South Africa!! The country has since produced its own version of the vaccine: 501 V2. Some deductions can be made from this exception. The most obvious speaks to the robust research infrastructure in that country. Despite the venality of apartheid in the then South Africa; the ruling class, embodied in the much reviled Boers, successfully put in place a first World Research infrastructure which can be seen in the quality of their universities, some of whom have elevated global ranking.

Then enter Nigeria. In the anti-apartheid struggle, Nigeria was at the barricades. But in the process, we could not build our country as the Boers did. Which is why today, Nigeria is not a favorite watering-hole for South-African academics, whereas the converse situation holds.

And such is our lack of capacity for self–reflection that when eventually, the imported vaccines arrived in Nigeria, some sort of celebration even attended the event. No thought was spared for a dispiriting situation in which, but for the external realm, there would have been no vaccines at all. Yet, we are not really short of scientists who can come up with the answers. After all, in those wealthy countries, Nigerian scientists are to be found, actively participating in the production of vaccines and other essential goods. On this note, it has been observed that if such productive scientists should be brought back to Nigeria, under the conditions which subsist here, chances are that nothing much will come from them.

This is why this narrative will be closed with Eniola: our earlier reference. This Johns Hopkins graduate of Public Health is currently sweating it out here as a General Medical practitioner. For obvious reasons, there is a lack of fit between her and the Nigerian environment. So she may well be headed for one of those rich countries in the nearest future. And would you blame her?

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