Liam Glen writes on why nationalism is a failing strategy to beat the coronavirus.
Nationalism was always one of President Donald Trump’s selling points. His campaign rejected both moral and strategic arguments for multilateral cooperation and instead pledged a policy that would put “America first.”
The COVID-19 pandemic might have given reason to reevaluation his approach, but instead the President has doubled down. There is little emphasis on global partnership in his response to the virus.
Perhaps the most notable example of this was the White House’s decision to defund the World Health Organization. At best it was a misguided reaction to the organization’s shortcomings, and at worst a political distraction. Either way, it served to further sever the United States from the rest of the world.
Now, as research into a potential vaccine ramps up, this approach looks like a pathway to failure. While it would benefit all countries to work together, not all of them are willing to play along.
In a recent Fox New Town Hall, Martha MacCallum asked President Trump if he thinks another country could beat us in vaccine development. “ I’m going to really say something that’s not like me, and it’s not like the two of you”, Trump said. “ I know you, and it’s not like you. I don’t care. I just want to get a vaccine that works. I really don’t care. If it’s another country, I’ll take my hat off to them. We have to come up with a vaccine. We’re working with other countries. We’re working with Australia. We’re working with U.K. I spoke with, the other day, your Prime Minister of U.K., all right. Boris, he is a victim of what happened. He thought it was over. He thought it was over. It was vicious, and he made it. He’s a great guy, and he made it. But he had first-hand experience, the ultimate first-hand experience.”
But, Trump’s actions have left room for improvement.
Global leaders, especially within the European Union, have held gatherings to discuss an international strategy for developing a COVID-19 vaccine. But the United States has been notably absent. In particular, the administration refused to participate in a World Health Organization-led initiative to accelerate development of a vaccine.
Instead, the White House seems to be going all in on “Operation Warp Speed,” which seeks to bring the public and private sectors within the United States together to rapidly develop a vaccine.
There have also been more underhanded strategies. The White House attracted controversy when the German government alleged that the Trump administration tried to buy exclusive rights for a potential vaccine being developed by the German company CureVac, so that it would be “only for the United States.”
The process of pharmaceutical research and distribution is a complicated one that cannot be kept entirely within one country’s borders. But governments can certainly affect the process. Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates have pointed out the danger of an insufficient international response, including the possibility that, “when these tools are available, they go to the highest bidder.”
As the Gates couple and others have pointed out, the reality of this scenario would be harrowing. For one, wealthier countries would likely be the first to create a vaccine and distribute it to their populaces, leaving less developed regions of the world to suffer even if they need help the most.
But even wealthy countries like the United States could find themselves left out. In the Fox News Town Hall, Trump also said that “I just want to get a vaccine that works. I really don’t care. If it’s another country, I’ll take my hat off to them.” Without a global agreement to ensure supplies go to those who need them, however, this competition could end poorly for the losers.
Many countries – namely India and China – are taking a similar strategy to the United States. They are reluctant to share medical equipment and drugs with other countries, and they have indicated that their vaccine research is intended to help their own citizens first.
From this fact alone, a nationalist strategy is a gamble. The country that first manages to develop and mass produce an effective vaccine will reap benefits, while others may very well find themselves at its mercy if they want enough doses to cover their own populations.
But there are two other factors to consider. For one, COVID-19 is an infectious disease. So long as it exists anywhere, there is a chance that it will spread. It is thus in any country’s best interests to ensure that it is eliminated worldwide.
For another, research is faster when there is collaboration. Medical researchers worldwide are already working together towards a vaccine. Their efforts could be accelerated if governments also came together to provide the necessary resources. It would be a win-win, but whether everyone decides to cooperate is an open question.
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