The world is about to become deeply mired in a horrible quarrel about the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Bilateral arrangements are multiplying, and the inflation in vaccine prices is under way, due to bargaining among suppliers and those who badly need supplies.
There could well be a global panic emerging.
Taiwan is in an ideal position to take on a leadership role in producing, securing and dispersing the best, tested vaccines, as well as assisting in testing further vaccines for greater dispersal in the coming weeks.
It is obvious that nations in Africa, South Asia and South America, as well as many impoverished groups in wealthier places, will be in special need of free vaccinations.
The WHO is voicing extreme worry and concern. A tactic might be for the highly successful low-COVID-19 nations of Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and China to take the rare opportunity and form a regional pact. They are best placed due to their low COVID-19 rates and efficient economies, and are able to disperse vaccines and the facilities needed for their efficient usage.
It is nearly certain that economic recovery in East Asia will lead the world because of low “covidity,” but also because of an expected resumption of the region’s higher performance compared with Europe and the US.
China is already posting a higher growth performance than had been thought, and the other nations in the region are clearly most alert to developments in the international environment.
When added to the innovative new trading organizations that are now in the offing, East Asia seems to be a prime area for vaccine leadership.
This might seem more than a little utopian given the fragile relations within the region. However, in truth, the same can be said of frictions within most nations, and certainly within most continents.
The only positive point that can be found amid the pandemic is a potential for a dynamic challenge-response mechanism to emerge that might for a time dampen these differences.
Taiwan might be a spectacular element in this — since the onset of the pandemic, Taiwan has had fewer than 900 cases and seven fatalities identified as directly related to COVID-19, with 36 cases per 1 million residents and a staggering 0.3 per 1 million mortality. [Editor’s note: A total of 10 new cases and one death were reported yesterday.]
This is spectacular under any measurement. As of yesterday, the world at large had more than 102 million cases and 2.21 million fatalities, with 13,095 cases per 1 million people and 279.7 deaths.
Japan, despite some real problems during the past year, has solid COVID-19 achievement with 2,553 cases and 35 deaths per 1 million residents. The “East Asian edge” has survived the vicissitudes of the year of COVID-19 — and has been led by Taiwan.
All official aid since 1945 has had political and cultural objectives well beyond those of helping people in disadvantageous situations. Most global action is not entirely benign.
For this proposal to make sense and have energy, the power of self-interest must be accepted, and used to build an East Asian pact centered on the free transfer and application of the best COVID-19 vaccines to the nations of greatest poverty and poorest infrastructure.
A good, rough guide is the UN measure of poverty — an East Asian project should promise free vaccines and vaccinations, with no ancillary transport or transaction costs, to all nations where annual per capita income in UN normal purchasing power parity terms is at or below US$8,000.
Such aid requires more than depositing the vaccines. Centers must be set up and training schemes instituted, and doctors, nurses, medical auxiliaries and transportation assistance should be offered for free.
For large, poor nations, this requires some diplomacy, and experienced aid and care workers to give information and sympathy to poor communities in isolated regions, and the enlisting of local young people would be logistically essential and helpful in mobilizing families and communities in voluntary assistance and cooperation.
Translation of what is happening is essential, requiring thoughtful and insightful individuals.
East Asia abounds with such people, but it requires cooperative government action to initiate the process. An additional advantage of East Asia could be gained through key alliances and working relations with major aid organizations with medical expertise, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children.
No East Asian nation could possibly be at a disadvantage within this scheme. The goodwill extended by the world at large would be enormous and have long-term beneficial results — for instance extending to Taiwan and China, and to the whole group of “growing” nations within the world community.
Another round of inter-East Asian quarreling and nit-picking — a most likely alternative outcome — would be derided as business as usual. Innovative, mutually beneficial cooperation and resource sharing would be viewed as revolutionary, and deflect the interference of the West in all Asian reform moves, disarm China into a real communalism of endeavor and — of far greater importance — be an essential ingredient in the recovery of the Global South.
Through global recovery and regional cooperation, such a pact might ease the many global tensions that would abound in the post-pandemic world.
Ian Inkster is a professorial research associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies at SOAS University of London; a senior fellow in the Taiwan Studies Program and China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham; and a historian and political economist, who has taught and researched at universities in Taiwan, Australia, Britain and Japan.
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