WITH COVID-19 VACCINATIONS well underway in the United States, national attention has largely shifted away from supply concerns. On a global scale, however, vaccine access remains a massive problem. As of September 2021, only 2% of adults in low-income countries had been fully vaccinated, compared with 50% in high-income countries. Only about 4 in 100 Africans had received all required doses.
The deplorable character of this state of affairs, which many have labeled as vaccine apartheid, need not be repeated. It does not make sense from a public health perspective; it is bad for US foreign policy goals; and it implicates American society into yet another chapter of human suffering worldwide. There is also something genuinely sinister about how quickly vaccinated countries have normalized other countries’ lack of access to vaccines.
American liberals, for example, have soothed their consciences about all this. They are satisfied with Biden’s 200 million vaccine donations and with America’s status as the world’s top vaccine donor. Nevermind that, had the US not hoarded so many more vaccines than it actually needed, middle-income countries might have been able to buy doses without needing a donation. Or that the World Health Organization would have been able to assist low-income countries had rich countries’ orders not exhausted its supply of shots.
Leftists have assessed Biden’s achievements with greater sobriety, but they have not yet proposed any viable alternatives. Patent waivers—pushed by senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and ultimately accepted by Biden—will not solve the issue by themselves. Implementing these waivers will be an important step toward enabling vaccine production throughout the world in the long term, but does little to ramp up production now. Low-income countries simply lack the infrastructure to produce vaccines themselves, and even middle-income countries will take a while to catch up.
What is to be done, then? Biden obviously cannot appear to put the safety of foreigners before that of Americans, even though it may be the morally right thing to do. The last thing he wants is for Americans to feel like they cannot get their third doses because they were siphoned off for the benefit of foreigners; or to deal with the consequences of businessmen angry at lost profits, were he to use the Defense Production Act in order to increase production of vaccines for export.
There is, however, an optimal point between a policy of “America keeps all the vaccines it can get” (which it did until April 2021) and one of “America donates all surpluses and risks internal problems.” And in spite of its donation program, the US is still far from this optimal point. The US failed to donate 55 million AstraZeneca doses that it never used; it let at least 15 million doses expire domestically; and it continues to hoard vaccines way beyond domestic needs. All this amounts to a policy failure that likely resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths overseas.
American action on this issue has obviously been a moral failure—but for the left, it is also a missed opportunity.
After decades of neoliberalism in Washington, the Biden administration’s social-democratic tendencies are having a very positive influence throughout the world. After all, when austerity loses in the United States, austerity loses everywhere. In Latin America, for example, neoliberal economists can no longer point to “what works in the US” as a talking point for tax cuts or fiscal conservatism. Meanwhile, the biggest figure in the Brazilian left, Lula, has told his aides to carefully study the Biden administration as a possible model for a future presidency.
But through its complicity in vaccine apartheid, the American left may jeopardize a unique opportunity to nudge world leaders into adopting more progressive policies. If the left allows Biden to continue ignoring other countries’ calls for vaccines, the world might come to perceive him as a kind of Lyndon Johnson: a man remembered not for passing Medicare or the Civil Rights Act, but for overthrowing left-leaning governments and for the Vietnam War. Johnson’s foreign policy was so toxic that most leftists around the world started crediting Americans’ prosperity to nothing but imperialism. And if Americans’ prosperity had nothing to do with domestic policy, why should progressives look for any inspiration in the US?
As usual, American leftists would do well to pressure Biden into emulating FDR. Roosevelt was not the last progressive American president, but he was the last one to inspire the global left — in no small part due to his foreign policy. Had he supported Fascism in Europe, or treated Latin America as a fiefdom (as did all his predecessors and successors), it is likely that the world would have looked past his achievements. But by improving Americans’ lives without succumbing to authoritarianism or screwing over the entire world, it became impossible for progressives not to ask themselves: what are Americans doing right?
It is depressing to see that over the past months, the boldest calls to vaccinate the world have come from the New York Times editorial board and not from the left. So far, there has only been modest activism in the US calling for worldwide vaccine distribution—and even this has decreased since the Biden administration’s half-measures came into effect.
Under these circumstances, the left might do well to remember that pressuring Biden to hoard less and export more vaccines is not only about saving lives from Covid—but also about expanding social democracy throughout the world.
Daniel “Bob” Ferreira
Image credit: World Health Organization