With Canada entering COVID-19’s fourth wave, Queen’s Law scholars and alumni lawyers share their insights on legal aspects of growing national and international concern. In this second of a three-part series, Professor Ashwini Vasanthakumar is interviewed for her perspective on some key obstacles to the global distribution of vaccines.  

Professor Ashwini Vasanthakumar, Queen’s National Scholar in Legal and Political Philosophy, fully understands why Canada – and other developed nations – remain so eager to continue rolling out vaccines that will get the pandemic under control, allow their economies to fully reopen safely, and let life return to “normal.” Like many other Canadians, she was relieved when older family members got their shots and to be double-vaccinated herself.

However, Vasanthakumar is uncertain whether life can return to normal in some places without it returning to normal everywhere. “Ever since vaccines became the ‘magic bullet,’ policy-makers have warned against ‘vaccine nationalism’ – that is, against some countries focusing almost exclusively on vaccinating their citizens without thinking about vaccination more globally. “I’m just not sure,” she says, “that vaccine nationalism will get us there, at least in any sustainable way. In a global pandemic, when literally ‘we’re all in it together,’ it is ethically bankrupt for the rich to hoard vaccines.

“What seems to be happening at a distance is, in fact, very close to home for many people at Queen’s Law and in Canada more generally. The heartbreaking scenes we’ve seen on nightly newscasts may come from places that, though distant, are familiar and cherished for many people here,” Vasanthakumar says. 
“Vaccine nationalism is also short-sighted. Global interconnectedness means that we actually are all in this together, and letting the virus devastate countries in the Global South will only prolong the pandemic and its long-term economic and social effects for all of us. You don’t need to be a cosmopolitan idealist to question vaccine nationalism as being ultimately self-defeating.” 

Canada and other prosperous nations have seen it as their role to take concrete steps to help less well-off nations deal with the pandemic as its variants roll over more of the world. Among the measures she urges are providing more of the vital resources needed for life-saving care; supporting quick, efficient vaccine rollouts; and supplying broader aid for vulnerable communities and frontline workers. Some of this is well under way. The United Nations (through COVAX), World Health Organization, Red Cross, and other international NGOs are playing important roles in mobilizing and coordinating a global pandemic response. The problem is that they can’t do this without buy-in from resource-rich nations.

“To say there has been less leadership by the powerful than might have been hoped for is an understatement,” Vasanthakumar says.

She adds that the same could also be said of some political leaders in the Global South. “In many cases, the virus and its variants have ravaged communities because of poverty – poor resources, infrastructure, and health care facilities. But in some cases it is also about a lack of political will. 

“Both India and Brazil illustrate the dangers of leaders who don’t heed the advice of public health experts and the scientific community, instead stifling media scrutiny and playing to select political audiences at the expense of public health, especially affecting the poor and marginalized. In many cases, humanitarian disasters could have been mitigated. The problem wasn’t only resources; it was and is politics: a lesson and a warning for those of us in more prosperous nations.” 

By Ken Cuthbertson