Health, Humanitarian Emergencies

Covid-19: The Makings of a Third World War

Apr 16 2021 - When we were growing up in the sixties during the time of the Cold War between the USA and the then Soviet Union, we would often hear about a possible Third World War. Sometimes, the situation would get so heated that people would fear the Third World War might not be far away. I still remember the events in 1961, when the threats and counter-threats between President John Kennedy and Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev over the Bay of Pigs reached such an extreme level that a Third World War seemed imminent.

Sixty years have passed since then—and no, there hasn’t been a Third World War in all those years. At the beginning of last year, such a war seemed to be a far-fetched possibility, rooted only in imaginations. But in the aftermath of the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, it doesn’t seem to be so anymore. In fact, I’m willing to argue that a Third World War has already started last year and we have been fighting it ever since.

Make no mistake, Covid-19 has imposed a war and there is no getting away from it. The whole world has been trying to fight back against this invisible, common enemy of humankind. Just like the waves, this war has been splashing on the shores of country after country. The enemy has also been changing its traits and tactics. It doesn’t spare anyone—big or small, rich or poor, male or female.

So far, globally 221 countries and territories have been affected by Covid-19, more than 138 million people have been infected, and nearly 3 million people have died. I am aware that in terms of numbers, this is quite small compared to the death tolls of the First and Second World Wars. But in an advanced world dominated by science and technology, this is quite a high number. And all these lives were lost or ravaged not because of the use of weapons, but because of a virus. We have seen the destructive power of this enemy in countries like the USA, the UK, Brazil and India.

This war has rattled human lives and livings, destroyed economies, and changed day-to-day human relations and interactions. We are locked inside the house. The modus operandi of work has changed dramatically. Children are no longer going to school. People have been losing jobs, shops and businesses have closed down, and the economies have become stagnant. The ways of human greetings have also changed. People are not touching each other, and are refraining from going to each other’s house. The world is fighting this enemy using two weapons—first, by following health protocols, for example, regularly washing hands, wearing masks and maintaining social distance; and second, by taking vaccine which, although necessary, is not a sufficient instrument by itself to overcome Covid-19.

But it is important to recognise that with the Covid-19 vaccines, a new threat in the form of “vaccine nationalism” is also emerging, which is detrimental to the fight against Covid-19. This would have implications on global political economy in terms of power shifts and power relations among countries, as well as the power structure of the system. Because of a mismatch between the global demand for Covid-19 vaccines and their global supply, three trends are quite clear: First, every country is looking at its own interest and trying to protect its own people with the vaccines. As a result, every country is trying to get as many vaccine doses as it can. Second, the demand for Covid-19 vaccines is global but the vaccines are produced by a few countries. So, these vaccine-producing countries are also pursuing a policy of trade protectionism as far as the distribution of vaccines is concerned. Third, the vaccines are being used in power diplomacies by the rich countries.

Remember that with the advent of various vaccines, some countries moved fast to secure vaccines from various production points. Some countries were successful and some were not. Canada is an example where lack of access to vaccines in the global market delayed its whole inoculation programme at home. US President Joe Biden, after being elected, warned that vaccines produced by US firms would first be used to meet domestic demand before exporting them to other countries.

Given the context of European Union (EU) and Brexit, the situation in Europe has been much more complex. Since its birth, the UK-produced AstraZeneca vaccine faced criticism not from the scientific community but from the political leaders of the EU, including the French president and the German chancellor. The relentless efforts by the EU political leadership to discredit AstraZeneca were, according to some analysts, a backlash to the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Over the months, a number of EU countries abandoned the AstraZeneca vaccine and as a result, their vaccination programmes suffered a severe blow. The EU also put conditions that no EU country can export Covid-19 vaccines to non-EU countries and the export must be confined to EU members if there is a need by another EU country. Last week, the UK has also announced similar restrictive measures.

Because of all the dynamics of political economy of rich countries, the availability of such vaccines to the developing world would suffer. Already, some developing countries have run out of their initial supplies and are now turning to China and Russia, the efficacy of whose vaccines is often questioned. In this new world with new realities, in the coming days, the power of a rich country would be determined to a large extent by the stock of vaccine it has and its production capacity. That country will use its vaccine power to extend its geopolitical strength. Among the developing countries, there will be those preferred by the developed countries as far as the supply of vaccines to those countries is concerned. Covid vaccine may be a crucial determinant in informing and influencing the future global system.

Clearly, we are in the midst of a very different kind of a global war. And people are dying in great numbers every day. The First and Second World Wars lasted for about five years, and the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic lasted for about two years. How long would the present Covid-19 war continue?

Selim Jahan is a former Director, Human Development Report Office, UNDP.

This story was originally published by The Daily Star, Bangladesh

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