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Vaccine geopolitics during COVID-19

Vaccine geopolitics during COVID-19

Jennifer Hyndman

The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus illustrates that we are connected globally like never before, yet responses to the virus are decidedly local and national, exposing new geopolitical fault lines and exacerbating material divides that make the difference between living and dying.  

To put it bluntly, “we are simply not all in this together,” says Jennifer Hyndman, Professor in the new Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change and former director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York. Hyndman researches humanitarian disasters in East Africa and South Asia, but also studies critically refugee policy, social inclusion, and hidden homelessness s in relation to newcomer groups in Canada. 

Economic inequalities across world regions and even between countries have been exacerbated, exposing the inability of many governments to protect the lives of their citizens during COVID. Fragmented national responses to a global problem include thickened or closed borders and ‘vaccine geopolitics’, a race among states to test, get and use against the virus. 

Indeed, COVID-19 has proven to be an unprecedented global pandemic, alongside a deeper pernicious pandemic, namely systemic anti-Black racism and related police violence, as witnessed in protests mounted in the United States and across the world in May and June 2020. As US Senator Kamala Harris said in August 2020 after being named as Joe Biden’s VP running mate, “there is no vaccine for racism.” Layered onto anti-Black racism and the police violence it produces, COVID and racism represent ‘dual disasters’ that together have deeply unequal and racialized consequences across the world. A multitude of disasters -- loss of livelihoods, poverty, and lack of access to health care among them -- produce more vivid fault lines than ever in the context of the pandemic.

“Those facing dual, or multiple, disasters will experience more acute losses of life and livelihood than those who face COVID-19, alone. Echoing public health professionals and many others, I include anti-Black racism as a public health pandemic in my brief analysis.  Second, responses to COVID-19 and its effects have fragmented the world into much more state-centred and regionalized factions, despite unprecedented social, economic and even political globalization. This balkanization contributes to and is also an outcome of more nationalist ‘vaccine geopolitics’ where borders thicken and biosecurity becomes part of a heightened ‘homeland’ security,” Hyndman elaborates.  

Refugee sponsor welcoming newcomers

“In Canada, newcomers who come to the country as refugees may be especially vulnerable during the COVID-19 pandemic because of difficulty accessing information about it or struggling to stay safe at work where they are overrepresented in frontline, essential jobs,” Hyndman notes. “Many of these former refugees who are now permanent residents live in tight quarters on lean incomes and make frequent visits to the food bank. For those who speak little English or French, lack of information or even misinformation about the virus and its spread can be a major obstacle,” she adds. (View Angie Seth’s interview with Hyndman in CTV News).  As colleagues at the Centre for Refugee Studies, Hyndman is a co-investigator on “Promising Practices in Accessing Virtual Mental Health: Supporting Refugees during COVID-19, a new CIHR grant, led by PI Michaela Hynie (Faculty of Health) to address these issues and parlay them rapidly into practical responses.

On an international scale, the race to produce a vaccine to manage the pandemic at the earliest possible moment has become a geopolitical game. Governments in wealthy countries are spending billions to develop and secure vaccine allocations for their citizens; while testing sometimes occurs in poorer countries, their citizens are likely to be less prioritized that voter-citizens in the richer countries. Canada has already been shunned by a Chinese vaccine company which agreed to test trials here and elsewhere. Other site testing is well underway, but Canada faced a long delay in getting the vaccine. Commentators speculate that the (geo)politics of Huawei, namely Meng Wanzhou’s possible extradition from Canada, and the imprisonment of the two (Canadian) Michaels may figure in the delay which has led to the trial being cancelled.

Photo credit: Jennifer Hyndman

To say the least, “the health and well-being of people in one locale has never been so tied to the health status of people in faraway places. And yet dual or multiple disasters coinciding – the pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism as a start – produce death and dispossession, accentuating disparities at home and across the world as COVID-19 accentuates existing fault-lines of inequality and vulnerability,” Hyndman concludes.  Responding to the pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-Black racism demands a ‘new normal.’ As Roxana Gay notes above, “The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free” (Gay 2020: 3). Crisis can create new political space for change.