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A call for ‘vaccine solidarity’ instead of ‘vaccine nationalism’

The recent report of Oxfam on the consequence of Covid-19 – the ‘inequality-virus’, confirms my intuition: we Europeans are lucky again. We are lucky to be born here in the northern hemisphere. Since it gives us more certainty, almost even the guarantee, that we will have access to the coveted vaccine against coronavirus in a reasonably short period of time. While I myself am waiting for the result of a covid test, I am listening to the tragic news about the global distribution of these vaccines. Internationally, policy makers were developing agreements to implement a collaborative procurement system at a global level, whereby the most vulnerable groups, anywhere in the world, would be the first to have access to the vaccine. But in the end, the US, Canada and Europe, among others, decided to make their own agreements with the pharmaceutical companies to procure the necessary vaccines for themselves. This involves pre-ordering one and a half billion doses of vaccine for Europe to be precise. By way of comparison: the three billion poorest people will only have 300 to 700 million doses of vaccine at their disposal in the coming months – not purchased by themselves, but donated by COVAX, according to Dimitri Eynikel of Médecins Sans Frontières in Belgium. I almost choke on my dry cough. I feel particularly indignant and even angry about this. Has nothing really changed? In Belgium, in the last months, people have been talking about a major shift in which we are evolving towards a ‘new normal’. However, my hope for such fundamental change – post-corona – is already getting a firm dent.

The fact that Pfizer is – coincidentally  in Belgium, and moreover in my former home town, reinforces my feeling of indignation. On the one hand there is the pride that a vaccine has been found that seems safe and can be produced and distributed on a large scale. Not only the name of the company, but also the place is gradually enjoying world fame as journalists from across the globe are visiting it to report on the small, rural town of Puurs-Sint-Amands. A compliment on the hat of all these people who invested time and resources to realize this. We can rightly be proud of that. But will we continue to be? Just because Pfizer is based in our country, as a citizen of one of the most prosperous countries in the world, I also feel addressed in a different way. Are we really going to sit back and watch this race for a vaccine become a ‘festival of super profits, not of care for people’, as Nobel laureate Muhammed Yunus, founder of the Grameen Bank, predicted in his contribution for the Economy of Francesco (held in November 2020)? Or do we want to use this as an opportunity to question the economic system, fueled by political short-sightedness, that makes this possible? Of course, companies can be rewarded for their efforts and investments, both in financial and human capital. The researchers must have worked day and night and the job is not over either. The logistical challenges are legion. At the same time, many others have worked hard as well, to deal with the people suffering from the symptoms of Covid, be that on the level of health care (hospitals and nursing homes), education (schools and parents home schooling), or labour (helping the unemployed), not to mention the people who we always tend to overlook – the ‘hidden exiles’ in our societies as pope Francis called them in Fratelli tutti: the (trans)migrants and refugees, the homeless, the disabled people….

This time demands a lot of courage. From politicians, from employers, from healthcare providers, and ultimately from all of us. Could we also use this courage to send out a signal that we want things to be different, that we can focus solidarity not only on our immediate families but also on people far away? And that we ask ourselves questions about these political choices, of which again the most vulnerable people on our planet are the biggest victims? Wouldn’t it be nice, particularly during this time of the year where we look forward to be connected with people and live in solidarity in the spirit of Christmas, to look beyond our noses and have an eye for what goes on beyond our national borders? Maybe I am hopelessly naive and this call testifies to a lack of economic insight. Or maybe the world’s improver in me is not yet completely dead and buried. Perhaps it testifies to a belief in social capital and in the conviction that ‘most people are virtuous’ – as the Dutch bestseller by Rutger Bregman is entitled, in English aptly translated as ‘Humankind’ – including the CEOs of multinationals and pharmaceutical companies, and citizens – like me –  of the countries that house them.

I look forward to being proud of this. To see the heat of the strong indignation I feel turn into a warm feeling for the solidarity we can show. A pandemic is also an opportunity. An opportunity to let ‘vaccine solidarity’ prevail over the current tendency to ‘vaccine nationalism’, as also the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Development has recently confirmed What a great feeling that would be after such a horrible year and as we forge  a new one: 2021.