The pandemic has shed a revealing light on the way we organise society and international relations. The global distribution of vaccines against COVID-19 presents a sorry tale of nationalism versus globalisation. The death toll amongst the poor and vulnerable in Britain starkly reveals the underlying values of our political culture.
The production of vaccines, as in most realms of scientific endeavour, has been an international effort, one that has shown the value – and one of the drawbacks - of public-private partnerships. The iron law of the market is that those who pay most for scarce resources acquire them, or at least get them first. Pharmaceutical companies can and do work effectively for shared aims with national governments but that does not mean the profit motive and markets have magically disappeared. That said the rigours of the market do not excuse what is now called ‘vaccine nationalism’.
Economic globalisation has created transnational supply chains, allowing goods to be sourced where labour is cheap with just-in-time delivery giving competitive advantage. But if you run out of essentials for manufacturing a vaccine in bulk, for example vials to put the vaccine in, plus stoppers, needles and syringes to inject it, or even lipid components of the serum, you can be as nationalist as you like, there will be delays in vaccinating your people and more will die. Quite apart from the oft repeated and obvious truth, highlighted by the plight of India and Brazil, that with a mutating lethal virus that easily crosses borders ‘until everyone is safe, no-one is safe’, vaccine nationalism is delusional.
Vaccine nationalism is well described as common nonsense, a useful term invented by the Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan. He wrote that common sense “commonly feels itself omni-competent in practical affairs, commonly is blind to the long-term consequences of policies and courses of action, commonly is unaware of the admixture of common nonsense in its more cherished convictions and slogans.” Governments taking no responsibility for the plight of those beyond their borders claim they must fulfil their primary duty to protect their people, deliberately ignoring the interdependence of both lives and livelihoods in the 21st. century and the last three decades of the 20th, our most recent phase of globalisation. Classic common nonsense.
Britain as a nation trading globally, London as a transport hub, means that our borders are permeable to the virus and to the people who may transmit it. What does ‘take back control’ mean in this context? We can thank the clever snake-oil salesmen of BREXIT in part for this particular common-nonsense slogan. Britain’s population is aging and part of growing old is the onset of different ailments and declining strength. Who in that age-group would not wish to ‘take back control’? Tune in to bus conversations about what the nurse said and which medicine does the job best. Transpose to fears about the NHS ‘being swamped’ by foreigners and hey-presto you’ve got a Wizard- of- Oz grade slogan particularly appealing to the old. But it’s still common nonsense.
BREXIT nationalism expressed in ‘taking back control’ is not just, as Peter Oborne, calls it, ‘an assault on truth’, it is plausible because it contains a grain of truth. Our success with mass vaccine distribution is in striking contrast to the mistakes made by the European Union. The Commission’s own mess is compounded by the ponderous national regulatory procedures of each member state. Warnings about alleged dangers have created widespread distrust in AstraZeneca, producing one of the most easily distributed, safe and effective vaccines on the market. Vaccine nationalism is not uniquely British.
Current conflicts can be viewed in ways other than through the prism of nationalism. The principle of subsidiarity, action should not be taken at a higher level unless it cannot be taken effectively at a lower level, offers an alternative way of looking at them. This sounds all very Catholic and what my old Professor at the University of Galway would call ‘amorphous’. In fact the term was first used to describe the principle of Calvinist Church governance, or so claimed the Cellule de Prospective (Forward-Planning Unit) set up by Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission in the early 1990s. Article 5 of the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 states that the ‘EU does not take action (except in the areas that fall within its exclusive competence), unless it is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level’. That’s subsidiarity though you may not have noticed. The UK would have done well to have heeded the principle instead of creating a centralized Track and Trace system bypassing existing local public health systems of infection control.
The other political principle highly relevant to the tension between nationalism and globalization has also become central to Catholic Social Teaching. It is solidarity, a commitment to the common good of all that transcends national frontiers. Both the pandemic and climate change show that solidarity is not just a utopian concept or a counsel of perfection in an imperfect world but an urgent necessity. Vaccines and vaccination are a global common good for all humanity. Globalisation, and many of its features, may not be the last word but its present reality requires nothing less than the application of the two principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. They must inform any new social contract.