Globalisation offers opportunities for health in the sense that medical technologies can be shared across different continents in order to ensure an equal standard of healthcare. It can also lead to the transmission of harmful viruses such as COVID-19.
According to Ruger and Yach (2009), the World Health Organisation (WHO) plays a significant role in global healthcare governance, making it the body responsible for organizing, evaluating, and monitoring health standards. Since the discovery of the COVID-19 virus in Hubei Province, China in late 2019, the WHO has been at the forefront of efforts to establish guidelines to curb the spread of the virus and maintain global health standards.
It is important to remember that the virus’s propagation is a product of globalisation. This is owing to the demands of interconnection, which necessitate the interchange of products and services as well as human mobility. The paradox is that, while globalisation was supposed to bring the world closer together for the betterment of everybody, it has actually done the opposite.
According to Meyer (2007), the disadvantages of globalisation are often overlooked as the advantages seem to outweigh them. It is when events such as the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to disrupt the world system in its entirety that the disadvantages are considered. The response to the pandemic was initially well coordinated with the WHO, setting measures for containment of the spread and monitoring the compliance of states with their regulations. This, however, changed, according to Fontaine (2020), when talks of creating vaccines started. Suddenly, the ideas of global governance were thrown out the window and national interests became the order of the day.
Globalisation and vaccine nationalism
Globalisation is a contested concept as it has multiple meanings. It is understood to refer to the exchange of ideas, intellectual property, and technologies, amongst other things. The COVID-19 vaccine can be considered an exchange of intellectual property that is being denied to the global-south countries in order for the global-north to develop the capacity to produce vaccines locally. In addition, the sharing of vaccine stock has been slow due to the richer countries’ accumulating more stock than needed, Fontaine (2020).
Nationalism, similarly to globalisation, is a contested concept with multiple meanings. Vaccine nationalism, in particular, is understood to refer to the intentions of governments to get ahead in the vaccine race. This sees governments use all resources available to them to secure a large number of vaccines for their populations (Khan, 2021). This creates insecurity amongst the states with limited capacity to manufacture their own or procure vaccines from other states.
The COVID-19 virus has created the largest pandemic of the modern age and has thus formed new nationalism such as vaccine nationalism. The central tenets of globalisation are a call for universality and global governance; this is why organisations such as the WHO exist.
The WHO is meant to ensure equality in global health governance. However, it cannot control the wealth and resources of nations. The World Systems Theory maintains that world issues and developments should be studied from a global position and not a national one. This is attributed to the fact that the international system is what creates inequality. This argument is valid to a certain extent, as COVID-19 is an issue that highlights many inequalities in the healthcare system globally.
Given the recourses to vaccine distribution, the notion of nationalism has come back to the forefront. Nationalism goes against the tenets of globalisation and argues that states should look after their own interests and people above everything else.
Does nationalism still matter in the age of globalisation?
In answering this question, it should be considered that the global-north states retreated from globalisation when the pandemic emerged. Most states were concerned about their own citizens and those of their allies. Khan explains that states such as the United Kingdom and Japan had already procured vaccines before they even went into production.
This led to two disadvantages in the global-south. It created a dependency on allies to share vaccine stock, and it ruled out some poorer countries from getting the vaccine outside of donations offered through various programs. In this context, globalisation is responsible for creating dependency among states on others. This is exemplified by the case of South Africa, whose vaccine rollout plan is heavily dependent on the availability of stock from other states such as India.
A converse argument has been made by Alakija, who argues that African states have a chance to free themselves from aid dependency through the waiving of intellectual property. This has given the possibility for African states to manufacture their own vaccines. This argument fails to acknowledge the developmental challenges that are faced by African states. Although the wavering of patents comes with opportunities, the disadvantages stem from a lack of capacity, which maintains the dependency aspect of vaccinations in Africa.
Vaccine nationalism is not the only developmental concern that has arisen from the COVID-19 pandemic, but, in my opinion, it should be considered the most dangerous. This is primarily because it has the potential to prevent global citizens from getting the healthcare that they need. Although this is a new form of nationalism, it is effective in highlighting the developmental inequalities that exist in the international system. It also shows a downside to globalisation. The arguments made in this article show this in various ways and should be considered as a way of building more arguments around this new phenomenon.
Image by South China Morning Post
Oratile Mangwane is an honours student at the University of Pretoria
The GIA is a research-based security firm, whose primary purpose is to contribute to safer communities and world order.