The COVID-19 pandemic brought a lot of changes in international politics. It was a revealing event that showed how states behaved when everyone was affected the same, or threatened the same. While there are indeed international issues that are global but have only a few affected countries, COVID was a pressing issue for all countries equally.
It put to a test how countries would act in a situation like this. Everyone is equally vulnerable, and each country is left to its own devices in how to secure its population. New Zealand managed to fight the pandemic very effectively within its territory, having only 26 deaths from COVID since the pandemic started. Another notable effort was that of Israel, which has vaccinated over 75% of its population so far. Some countries were able to be where they are by their own efforts, and some needed some help.
That is where the term “vaccine diplomacy” comes into play. The board is set so that global powers provide assistance to their closest allies or advance their interests through vaccine sharing programmes and initiatives. Some of the earliest instances of vaccine diplomacy were carried out by Russia and its Sputnik-V vaccine, and China through various different vaccines. Both countries used their vaccines to help their allies. For instance Russia sent Sputnik-V vaccines to countries like Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba. China sent Sinopharm and Sinovac to those countries and to other, more neighbouring countries like Mongolia.
On the other hand, the U.S. had not started vaccine diplomacy efforts up until relatively recent months. The U.S.’s internal vaccination campaign has been successful and it is still on the rise, as the country also provides and promises vaccines to its most neighbouring countries. President Biden had announced that he intended to provide 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine through the COVAX mechanism.
Take the example of Panama, a country with stretch ties with the United States, and recipient of over a million COVID vaccine doses from the U.S., now has a growing vaccination campaign. As a country with a relatively small population, these donations from the United States may be small in the eyes of American politics, but they are enormous for countries in Central and South America.
Which brings us to one of the main advantages of how the U.S. has targeted its vaccine diplomacy. The Biden Administration has stated that its main priority when exporting vaccines will be Latin America, starting with Central America specifically. Just like the example of Panama, other Central American countries, initially Costa Rica and the Caribbean nations of Dominican Republic and Haiti, the latter of which is now under high levels of vulnerability and risk due to the recent earthquake and political instability.
President Biden also promised a number of doses that would arrive through COVAX for other lower income countries like Honduras, Nicaragua and El Salvador. It is worth noticing that these the aforementioned countries have already received vaccine shipments from China. In South America the situation is similar; Argentina and Bolivia would be receiving Pfizer vaccines from the U.S. eventually through COVAX, but these countries have already received shipments from China and Russia.
The Administration has recognized that a protected continent is in fact an American interest after all, and most importantly Central America. Recognizing that the vast majority of immigrants come from our southern border, it is a fair and correct assessment that it would be in the best interest of the country to ensure herd immunity in the continent as soon as possible. Some estimates by the World Health Organisation point to a magic number of 500 million people to vaccinate to achieve herd immunity in the Americas.
Is the American vaccine diplomacy destined to succeed or to fail? It certainly has a setback, which is to have been second or even third in some countries. The aid provided is certainly appreciated by the recipient countries, but China and Russia were the ones to secure shipments first and it may serve in their interest more than it would to the United States. Nonetheless, in sheer numbers, the U.S. has an advantage of providing vaccines that have a higher efficiency than those provided by Russia and China.
Moreover, by targeting Central and South American countries, the U.S. is able to provide vaccines for countries with smaller populations, reaching high percentages of immunity in each individual countries by providing quantities that are not too significan for the U.S. Taking back the example of Panama; this is a country with an approximate population of only 5 million people. The recent shipment of a million Pfizer doses, and a previous shipment of half a million AstraZeneca doses effectively covers 15% of the total doses that should be applied in the country, in just a couple of months.
Nonetheless, it is necessary to assess the priorities right now. A new vulnerability point in the region is brewing up in Haiti, as uncertainty rises after both a political and a natural disaster. The U.S. has previously denied aiding Haiti in maintaining public order, but after the earthquake, USAID has started assessing the possibility to send humanitarian aid. It would be quite tone deaf from the administration if this aid did not include a widespread vaccination effort in Haiti. Poverty and turmoil in the country certainly create a vulnerable environment that could affect the neighbouring Dominican Republic or other Caribbean Islands.
The U.S’s strategy, at first glance, could be on the road to being a successful vaccine diplomacy campaign, helping a lot of countries with relatively small cost or effort for the country, while also having one of the best vaccination campaigns internally. It has been a wise decision on behalf of the government to provide for the population in an orderly manner but bearing in mind that the country is not an isolated system, and that we are in constant contact with our neighbours.
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