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Relationships and health | Science | History | Geography | Citizenship | PSHE

EU threatens to cut off vaccine supplies

Are coronavirus jabs the new currency of power? In the past, empires rose and fell on the back of salt, gold and oil. Now some argue it will be vaccines that reshape global politics. The press was up in arms. “Brussels threatens to block vaccine”, was The Telegraph’s headline. The Daily Mail warned of a “great vaccine blockade”. For some, it was the opening salvo in the “vaccine wars” – the growing competition between countries using vaccines to their own advantage. The row started on Monday evening, when AstraZeneca informed the European Union that it would not be able to provide it with as many vaccines as it had originally promised. That caused outrage in the EU, which demanded to know where its vaccines had gone. Shortly afterwards, the EU threatened to restrict exports of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine – largely produced in Belgium – to safeguard its own vaccine supplies. This caused panic in the UK, which is scheduled to receive 3.5 million Pfizer vaccines. What sparked all this squabbling? The countries that vaccinate the quickest will get a competitive advantage in global trade. The world’s biggest economies have been forced into repeated lockdowns to slow the spread of Covid-19. A rapid vaccination programme will allow them to reopen sooner than their economic rivals. Vaccine producers can use their supplies to put pressure on other countries. Ukraine has refused vaccines from Russia. So, Russia is using this to stir up outrage in Ukraine against its anti-Russian government. All this makes vaccines very valuable, and the richest nations are taking steps to secure their supply. Early in the pandemic, some poorer countries asked the World Trade Organisation to suspend intellectual property rights on all Covid-19 jabs. But richer states banded together to block the proposal, ensuring they would keep tight control of the world’s vaccine supply. As a result, some suggest that Covid-19 vaccines are the latest in a long series of commodities that have reshaped geopolitics throughout world history. For much of our history, salt was the world’s most valuable commodity. Whoever controlled salt supplies had huge power, and rulers used it to expand and maintain their authority over their own people and neighbouring countries. Poland emerged as a great European power on the back of its abundant salt mines, only to collapse when German sea salt outcompeted its inferior rock salt. Similarly, control of gold and silver has been the making and breaking of empires. Spain colonised South America because of its deep gold and silver mines and became Europe’s foremost economic and military power. In the 19th Century, coal became the world’s most important commodity. Control of supplies meant industrialisation, and those countries that industrialised – Britain and the US – dominated the global market to become the world’s most powerful nations. Then in the 20th Century, it was oil that changed global politics. It even sparked wars, notably the Gulf War, in which Iraq invaded Kuwait to keep the price of oil high. Are Covid jabs the new currency of power? Salt of the earth Yes, say some. Competition over scarce resources has been a constant feature of world history. There is a huge competitive advantage for those countries that can vaccinate their own population quickly, and control the supply of vaccines to other countries. The countries that corner the vaccine market will be in pole position to dominate world trade after the pandemic. Not at all, say others. The vaccine will only be valuable for as long as the pandemic continues. Vaccine producers are under considerable moral pressure to make the vaccine available to poorer countries with no strings attached. More than anything else, the vaccine seems to have deepened existing geopolitical relations, and inequalities between the Global North and South. KeywordsOpening salvo - The first in a series of questions or statements used to try and win an argument.

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