Covid-19 and international relations: Forces of change, continuities and discontinuities

The Chronicle

Wallace K Musakanyi
Forget about its devastating impact on humanity, the Covid-19 pandemic has brought interesting and new dimensions to international relations as an academic discipline that raises crucial questions that must be digested by the main actors in this field, among which are diplomats, academics, researchers and policy makers.

The outbreak of this deadly pandemic has revealed the urgent need to invest in human security in general and health security in particular must be high on the priorities of states, just as states do in acquiring new military technologies.

By defending their sovereignty and their territorial integrity by means of arms, States must also do the same by initiating initiatives and research in the field of health.

Despite the fact that health is one of the key global public goods whose benefits extend to all countries, all people and all generations, the manufacture of Covid-19 vaccines by the great powers of world politics has diminished the non-rivalry and non-exclusion qualities of vaccines that are part of global public goods.

Indeed, the normative and multilateral efforts of mutual cooperation which are part of the primary obligations of States were marred by vaccine diplomacy with the advent of the Covid-19 epidemic.

Vaccine diplomacy is essentially about using Covid-19 vaccines to improve a country’s diplomatic relations and its influence over other countries.

Instead of uniting through cooperative programs, technology exchanges and health services in the manufacture of effective vaccines to save mankind, states have resorted to the use of vaccines as mechanisms of soft balancing to assume the status of hegemonism and superpower in the international system.

Eradication of the pandemic has practically become the secondary goal of states as the primary goal of these vaccines has been to exert state influence and moral superiority in an anarchic and unregulated international system.

India is a prime example of how harmful vaccine diplomacy can be. In a bid to balance power against its main regional rival, China, India has entered the race to manufacture vaccines and its Covaxin vaccine.

However, they exported more vaccines to developing countries, especially Africa, and vaccinated fewer people in their countries.

Its vaccine diplomacy program had a boomerang effect as it was hit hard by the third wave which killed more than half a million people in a short period of time.

Denigration, de-campaigning and propaganda are also toxic products of vaccine diplomacy. Long-standing rivalries between the great powers have persisted even at a time when countries are supposed to unite for a common goal.

This was notably evidenced by the antagonistic and skeptical response of the European Union, Australia and the United States government towards the Sinopharm, Sinovac vaccines produced by China and Sputnik V by Russia.

Vaccine manufacturing has become a continuation of the policy by other means that prolongs the war against this deadly virus.
Medical terrorism, which was also provoked by the outbreak of this pandemic, is also a fascinating term in the dictionary of international relations.

The term, first uttered by outgoing Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, reveals a correlation between economic sanctions imposed by the United States and the denial of much-needed medical supplies due to the frigid bilateral relations between the two countries.

The term resonates well with sanctioned countries and projects how sanctions can further the spread of the pandemic, as some mitigation mechanisms, including access to medical supplies and funding for the purchase of vaccines, are blocked by multilateral sanctions and financial restrictions.

The containment measures and the restriction of movement which are products of the pandemic have seriously affected regional integration which is a norm in this globalized world.

Nonetheless, vaccine passports introduced by various countries and regional organizations have brought a new dimension to regional integration, tailored to mitigate the spread of the virus.

The European Union recently introduced the EU vaccine passport which allows holders to move freely if they have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and recently tested negative for the virus before traveling.

Holders of vaccine passports are therefore not required to quarantine or test the host state. These passports are essentially essential to revive regional integration, in particular the hospitality and tourism industry which has been strongly affected by the pandemic.

Various windows within the discipline of international relations have been opened by the Covid-19 pandemic.

There is now a greater need for academics and researchers in international relations to fill these research gaps as part of a broader strategy to combat the pandemic.

* Wallace Musakanyi is a Masters student and writer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Zimbabwe who can be contacted at [email protected]

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