Written by: Zaheer Abbas
Vaccines have been the long sought silver bullet in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. Today, laboratories are household names – everyone can recognize the world’s vaccine producers, from Pfizer to Sinopharm. Consequently, they have also become policy priorities across the world. Countries are scrambling to secure enough vaccines to inoculate their population – in the process, the deep disparity between developing and developed countries in procuring vaccines have been revealed, and the ensuing competition has prompted states to use their tools as best as possible to retrieve vaccines.
Diplomacy has stood out as a most formidable tool. It has augmented the procurement strategies of states, complemented geopolitical strategy and has become a striking new priority in a striking new normal. In foreign policy discourse, “vaccine diplomacy” has joined the ranks of other diplomatic avenues like “climate diplomacy”. Bangladesh has seemingly recognized the potency of diplomacy as a tool for vaccine procurement – the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in soliciting vaccine donations has been most laudable – and it reveals many implications that vaccine diplomacy brings forward for the world to consider.
Bangladesh had slumped into a vaccine crisis early this year. Originally, it had opted to rely on India’s Covishield vaccine, having struck a deal with its Serum Institute to receive five million vaccines a month (Dhaka Tribune, 2021). India’s brutal second wave had brought the country to its knees, and in turn, severely restricted export of vaccines. The shortage brought about a temporary end to Bangladesh’s vaccination campaign – only recently would the government restart COVID-19 vaccination.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs must be applauded in this regard – it has played a proactive role in soliciting vaccine donations from countries all across the world and across the board. It has leveraged a strong partnership with China to receive approximately 15 million Sinopharm vaccines over the next few months, affiliations with Covax and allies such as the US and Japan to receive millions of Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, as well as further agreements with Russia to co-produce and purchase Sputnik vaccines. Next year, Bangladesh is expected to receive a gargantuan consignment of Johnson & Johnson vaccines that are intended to inoculate a vast proportion of the population. In short, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has enjoyed much success in leveraging existing, strong partnerships to receive vaccines.
It is important to note the lessons that can be learnt from Bangladesh’s vaccine diplomacy. There are three key learnings that should be stressed upon in both current and future endeavours relating to vaccine procurement:
- Making use of the Bangladeshi diaspora – the Bangladeshi diaspora have played a key role in channeling vaccine donations from the US (Mortoza, 2021), and their support should be well recognized as a diplomatic asset. There are countless members of the Bangladeshi diaspora across the world, and their willingness to aid the country should be used as a strong diplomatic tool.
- Maintaining diversity of sources – The earlier vaccine crisis demonstrated the folly of relying on a single source for Bangladesh. Should the source be compromised, it would paralyze Bangladesh’s own vaccine initiatives. Thus, a diverse basket of sources should be leveraged. This is feasible thanks to Bangladesh’s policy of “Friendship with all, malice with none”.
- Ensuring proactiveness – Bangladesh’s diplomatic maneuvers in regards to vaccination have been very persistent. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has engaged with actors from different international circles repeatedly. This has been a fruitful exercise and has ensured the delivery of millions of vaccines in June and July.
Although Bangladesh’s vaccine successes are certainly laudable, they do expose a growing international reality wherein vaccines do not just serve as a diplomatic priority – instead, they come to define the way state actors interact with one another. The most apparent reality is the soft power of vaccines – the goodwill brought forward through the donation of vaccines serves as a source of power for states to leverage over others. China, for example, faced significant loss of face with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, given that the virus had originated from the country. However, its production and donation of vaccines across the world have helped mend its image, allowing it to regain crucial soft power it had lost earlier. Given the widespread use of both Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines, its efforts seem to be working.
The attribution of soft power to vaccines has led to a certain degree of symbolism attached to them as well. Western states have been reluctant to sanction the usage of Chinese vaccines and vice versa – this is reflected wholly by the travel restrictions held by states across the world. Where in China, local vaccines enable fluid travel, they severely restrict the opportunity for travel in Western states – similarly, Western vaccines restrict travel in China but enable free travel in Western states. This reflects a dangerous trend, wherein vaccines are being used as a diplomatic tool to curb travel, and in turn, ties between states. As long as the international community does not come to a consensus with regards to vaccination and travel, there will remain a rather dismal outlook on the future of travel, wherein the world will be drawn on political fault lines defined by vaccinations.
Through its diversification of vaccine sources, Bangladesh has continued to insist on its nature of non-alignment in the international community. At least in regards to the current search for vaccines, this is a strategy that has paid off. It has ensured we do not succumb to the endeavours of power of states, and it has also ensured that our citizens are not trapped by virtue of the vaccine they have taken thanks to the wide availability of choices depending on their situation. However, it is also important for Bangladesh to think of the long term – as a country that is making use of vaccines from around the world and across the board, it could play a unique role in encouraging a more equitable and inclusive geopolitical reality with vaccines. Through building consensus between states with regards to vaccination, the world could very well avoid the divided reality of vaccine diplomacy that remains frighteningly possible today. It must also consider its own independence in this world – independence that is best sought through the local production (or co-production) of vaccines, as has been evidenced by government plans to produce generic vaccines and co-produce Sinopharm and Sputnik doses.
Vaccines are a merit good – they are something that all people ought to have access to, particularly during this pandemic. The role they play in the diplomatic front could very well ensure that countless lives are saved through equitable access and inclusive vaccine policies. To reduce them to an easily manipulated tool for power would needlessly take them away from their true purpose and only deepen the international faultlines of today. Bangladesh has taken many applaudable steps in this budding new field, but it must also be prepared to carve out a positive international reality with the rest of the world – a reality that can continue to save countless lives.
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Featured Image Credit: Syed Zakir Hossain