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Two roads diverged in a wood: Vaccine nationalism or global cooperation?

The squabbles between the United Kingdom and Europe over access to the COVID-19 vaccine reveals a self-centered nationalism in efforts to end the pandemic, writes Grant Tungay SJ. Examining Pope Francis’ Fratelli Tutti encyclical, he argues that the text calls for greater global solidarity in addressing common issues, providing a template for responding to the pandemic.

Recently, an argument erupted between the United Kingdom and the European Union over the supply of the COVID-19 vaccine produced by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. At the core of this spat seems to be the fact that the British-Swedish drugmaker has indicated that it will not be able to provide the number of vaccines that Europe was hoping for by the end of March, while seemingly prioritising deliveries of vaccines to the UK.

While the UK and EU begin to squabble about who is entitled to what, and in what order of priority, Cyril Ramaphosa has criticised the wealthy countries of the world for ‘hoarding’ COVID-19 vaccines, noting that some countries have secured up to four times the required number of vaccines for their citizens. Speaking at the recent World Economic Forum’s virtual Davos Agenda, Ramaphosa emphasised that the ending of the pandemic worldwide means that all countries will have to collaborate in the vaccine rollout, and that no country should be excluded from the benefits of such a programme.

A reflection of our self-centredness

In the middle of a global pandemic, where over two million people have already lost their lives to COVID-19, it is devastating to see countries fight about – and overstock – vaccines. The recent encyclical by Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti, holds up a mirror in which we are able to see our true selves reflected back, helping us to understand that a self-centred individualism suppresses the fundamental truth that human beings are God’s creatures built for relationship.

Fratelli Tutti holds up a mirror in which we are able to see our true selves reflected back, helping us to understand that a self-centred individualism suppresses the fundamental truth that human beings are God’s creatures built for relationship.

When we look at the fight between the UK and the EU over vaccines through the lens of Fratelli Tutti, this individualism is expressed in what Pope Francis calls an ‘aggressive nationalism’ (FT § 11). Certainly, it is the responsibility of every country to take care of its citizens, and that is what the UK and the EU are doing.

But what Pope Francis seems to be saying is that when national interests consume our collective imaginations to the point where a global vision of humanity is overshadowed, we lose our social sense. This loss of social sense is tragic because it fails to recognise the true nature of humanity facing a global crisis. In the words of Pope Francis, “we are a global community, all in the same boat, where one person’s problems are the problems of all…no one is saved alone.” (FT § 32).

In a certain sense, transnational pharmaceutical companies like AstraZeneca seem to understand this truth. A casual glance at their website will show such quotations like, “The COVID-19 pandemic is a challenge to humanity that demands a global, united response,” as well as, “It is important to us…that we can produce as much vaccine as possible to ensure broad, equal access as soon as possible after a potential approval.” These sentiments appreciate the universal nature of the pandemic and the need to respond comprehensively and holistically. 

A vision of global solidarity

Of course, Pope Francis is critical of the idea that we can leave the edification of a true global community in the hands of the free market. AstraZeneca will seek to uphold the interests of its shareholders even as it talks about equal access. Moreover, Pope Francis emphasises that solidarity means more than “sporadic acts of generosity” (FT § 116). Through his encyclical letter, he is not inviting us simply to hand out free vaccines from overstocked wealthy countries to poorer ones. He is inviting us to think and act as a global community – a single family with a common home.

Before one begins to criticise Pope Francis’ vision for being naively utopic, ignoring the very real political and social dynamics that characterise modern democracies, one needs to look at his criticism of a ‘false universalism’. The global fellowship that he is advocating for is not an ‘abstract universalism’ which seeks to undermine the richness and diversity of different nations and cultures through a bland uniformity (FT § 100). Pope Francis is at pains to point out that the global community doesn’t mean we need to “forget one’s own land, one’s own people, one’s own cultural roots” (FT § 143). Individual nations need to take care of and nurture their own.  

Pope Francis is at pains to point out that the global community doesn’t mean we need to “forget one’s own land, one’s own people, one’s own cultural roots.”

In contrast, his liberating insight is that we can only really know who we are if we reach out to others. We discover our self-identity by transcending our narrow hearts and mindsets to embrace something bigger.

In the context of a worldwide pandemic, Fratelli Tutti is extending an invitation to us to respond as a universal community, treating the sufferings of others as the sufferings of our own family. The argument between the UK and the EU and the hoarding of vaccines reject this invitation. However, there are glimmers of hope.

The WHO’s COVAX programme, to ensure equitable access to the vaccines, and the AU’s Covid-19 African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team are instances of international cooperation that seek to ensure a global access to vaccines. If we continue to nurture a broad vision of what overcoming this crisis looks like, the ‘new normal’ after COVID-19 will be a heightened sense of the world – not as a disconnected collection of self-serving nations – but as a fundamentally connected network of human beings.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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