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  • UCL Diplomacy Society

How vaccine nationalism exposes the hard truths of our world. By Hector McKechnie

Recently, there is talk of a ‘century repeat’ that is likely to occur. This is in reference to the Roaring 20s and the idea that, once we defeat Covid-19, the world will go absolutely Gatsby-style mental. To be clear, everyone should deserve to experience this ecstasy. We have been forced to confront a monster who wields power, the likes of which is rarely possessed. It tears apart entire national infrastructures. Worst of all, it has forced the world to find a way to beat it.


But why is this last quality the most monstrous of all? In sum, it has exposed the brutality of our world. Until recently, our global society has, in general, tended toward a humanitarian, democratic point. Needless to say, this point has been fading for a few years now. As a collective, we have been crushed by this monster. We have been ineffective in our pursuit of a collective method to beat it. This exposes the fundamental flaws in our system.

This article explains two hard truths. One, at its core, the world in which we live is no less savage than it was at its origin. Two, we must bounce back from the pandemic with an enlightened, collective ethos. For if, while we enjoy the freedom of living in a Roaring-20s repeat, we forget how terrible Covid was, we are in danger of ending up like Gatsby himself.

Our principal issue is vaccine nationalism. On paper, this is simply when a country prioritises its access to a vaccine above everyone else’s. In reality, it is a plague in itself.

Vaccine nationalism essentially consolidates the ‘survival of the fittest’ dynamic. Countries that can afford to pre-order the vaccine undoubtedly will. One of the principal functions of any nation-state should be to look after its citizens. If you have the financial ability to fulfil this function, then you will.

This leaves the ‘weaker’ countries left to fend for themselves, adding immense pressures to already unstable governments. This savage survival dynamic is further abetted by the presence of private Big Pharma. Asides from wealth, one of the perks of having developed country status is your increased access to the vaccine itself. The obvious example is the UK-developed Oxford-AstraZeneca dose, which has allowed the UK to embark upon a rampant vaccination programme. As of Valentine’s Day, the UK surpassed the 15 million mark and is preparing a ‘vaccine passport’ rollout that will give its citizens clear economic and physical liberties over the rest of the world.

WHO Director-General Thedros Adhanom Ghebreysus (initially not catchy, but now a household name) identified this nationalism as a “moral failure”. He is right in saying that it hinders global progress, but is he right to see it as a failure? Unfortunately, morality only extends so far. Really, we are all humans at the end of the day. We will accept help if it is available, we will avoid personal danger at all costs. In some cases, that cost is the safety and wellbeing of others. This can be a tough pill to swallow because most of us enjoy the prospect of helping others. We like to think that we contribute to society whilst we preoccupy ourselves with our Strava stats. In reality, most people are preoccupied with their very own survival. People forget the cold cruelty of our world.

With this being said, for readers in the UK, we shouldn’t see ourselves as moral failures. Nor should we mourn or protest our ability to get vaccinated – it is a simple benefit of being advantaged in a savage world. But it is always worth contemplating what it took to get that vaccine in your arm. Similarly, we shouldn’t get too excited when we hear of multinational ‘aid’. It’s heart-warming to hear that the UK has donated over £500 million to COVAX. However, when we turn on the BBC, these statistics are always secondary to our holiday plans or when our schools will reopen.

In sum, the vaccine nationalism phenomenon is only a small mirror that reflects a much larger global reality. And that reality isn’t all what it’s cracked up to be. For what that mirror ultimately reminds us of is that, if we do indeed enter the new Roaring 20s, we are Gatsby. That aforementioned point: that place we all believe is within our grasp is fading, for we are blind and naïve to the nature of the world in which we inhabit. To prosper, let us not repeat these same mistakes or fool ourselves into a common belief of inevitable fortune. To reach that light, we must first turn our gaze to ourselves and remedy our own behaviours and practices, for we cannot reach that light alone.


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