A Vulnerability-based Approach to Counter Vaccine Nationalism

Remarks from Honorary Chair HRH Prince El Hassan bin Talal at the World Refugee & Migration Council’s March 2021 panel discussion Vaccine Equity for the Forcibly Displaced.

Ladies and gentlemen, 

It is, as you are well aware, high time that the world moves from the chthonian underworld of vaccine nationalism, as politically crafted and implemented on the basis of status such as national vs. non-national, producer vs. consumer, exporter vs. importer, and yield towards policy crafted and implemented on the basis and with an eye towards alleviating vulnerability. That is to say from a status-based approach (as described by UNHCR) to a vulnerability-based approach.   

I would like to suggest that the advanced economies, including the United States, the European Union, and the United Kingdom, have, once more, and this time on the 10th of March, blocked the petition made by over 100 countries, mostly developing countries, for a temporary waiver of Trade and Intellectual Property Rules (TRIPS) for COVID-19 vaccines[1].

The fault lines of yesterday’s globalisation continue to be the fault lines of today. I would suggest that governments in Europe, North Africa, Australia, and (to some extent) South America will achieve widespread vaccination rates by late-2021 or mid-2022[2]. On the other hand, Africa, which as I must remind you all is home to more than Europe and North America’s populations combined, and West Asia (or the heart of West Asia- the Levant), have been razed by conflict. 

Tomorrow’s fault lines, ladies and gentleman, if the situation remains as it is, are today’s fault lines, but instead of disparities in rates of disease and death – those fault-lines will take on further disparities of the socio-economic kind: sociology will become socio-side, greater poverty, and greater injustice in the so-called Global South. Haaratez Newspaper and Jean Stern reported that the vaccine campaign started on Monday 8th March for 120,000 Palestinians from the occupied territories working in Israel. COGAT (The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories) -of the Israeli army- manages the occupation, also manages the checkpoints that they must pass every day and must present their identity card and work permit.  At the same time, on 7th March, 4.9 million Israelis had received one dose of Pzifer vaccine — which is a great achievement — 3.7 received two doses, and tens of thousands more are vaccinated every day[3].

We are affected by our neighbours, 1 in 3 of our population is a refugee, either a Syrian refugee or a Palestinian refugee, it is not an academic exercise for us, and we host up to 50 different nationalities. My question to you if Israel is regarded a model country and the Palestinians have been excluded, how we can justify inclusion and exclusion at one and the same time. I believe in the inclusion of the whole of the Levant and I hope the Austrian Chancellor Sébastien Kurz and the Prime Minister of Denmark Mette Frederiksen will be able, in their conversations, to focus on this essential central issue which is the dignity of people under occupation. Israel has been generous in offering a few thousand doses to Honduras, Guatemala, Hungary and the Czech Republic; this is of course good international public relations. But as far as the Palestinians, they only received 7,000 doses, 5,000 of which were reserved for caregivers and others to privileged groups of people. 

Jordan has been making the best available of trying to reconcile the arguments between the economic pressures and human pressures, but in terms of the social determinants of COVID our biggest problem is prejudiced in not taking the vaccine or the deep ear of irresponsibility which seems to affect many countries in the world under the name of freedom, but let me remind listeners that the worst form of freedom is freedom from responsibility. Will we learn from a pandemic? And if we do not learn from a pandemic when will we ever learn? 

I chose to speak about one of our neighbours but of course the Syrian situation is well known to many of you and we have of course willingly payed the price of hosting Iraqi and Syrian refugees and I point out that we are also being innovative. Here I would like to thank a Jordanian co-founder of Future Health Biobank and cofounder of BioClinical Middle East based in Amman[4], a centre specializes in bringing cutting-edge diagnostic tools to markets in the Middle East region. They are bringing to the market a US brand Covid-19 rapid antigen test cassettes (nasal swab) and other definition of the same.  

I want to thank you for giving me a chance to address issues which will be expanded upon by our specialised panellists. I do hope that the objective of big pharma which has rejected the proposal that would grant compulsory licencing by overriding patent rules will have some resonance particularly as the UK, Switzerland and the US which have strong pharmaceutical industries have opposed the waiver. I do believe we can only get this right in terms of those 10 million doses which have been delivered in more than 10 countries — by saying it is a huge step forward in terms of the beginning of the journey, but towards vaccine equity we should not be looking solely at when this vaccine can be made available as it is commonly in cases of influenza and elsewhere. As a hinterland country to the Arabian Peninsula like Yemen, like Syria we are doing our best to modal along but that is not going to last long without international understanding of human dignity.

Second intervention

It is time to separate disasters into four categories – three of which have run into each other and complemented each other-: elemental, forcible and deliberate, and these terms apply to what we live today, and the fourth is accidental. Jared Diamond puts it eloquently; he says “climate change, resource depletion, and inequality pose far more serious threats to our survival and quality of life than the current pandemic does”[5].   

The issue is not that vaccines are scarce, as, for example, oil is in Jordan, but that the vaccines have been made scarce  by supply-constrained conditions, as in the words of the World Health Organization’s finalized ‘Concept for Fair Access and Equitable Allocation of COVID-19 Health Products’. I would conclude by quoting Jason Hickel “A civilization that prohibits poorer nations from producing life-saving vaccines in the midst of a global pandemic is a civilization that is morally bankrupt.”[6]

Thank you for this opportunity.

[1] Karpan, Andrew. “WTO Fails to Reach Deal on COVID IP Waiver Proposal, Again,” Law 360, March 11, 2021.

[2] The Economist Intelligence Unit Economist Intelligence Unit. As printed in: The Economist. “Vaccine nationalism means that poor countries will be left behind,” The Economist, January 28, 2021.

[3] Israël pratique l’apartheid vaccinal en Palestine – JEAN STERN – Orient XXI 11 MARS 2021

[4] Ruba Al Ahmad, Co-founder, Future Health Biobank GCC, Co-founder BioClinical ME LLC

[5] Jared Diamond “How Might COVID-19 Change the World” as published in the Project Syndicate, 29th December 2020

[6] Hickel, Jason. [@jasonhickel]. “A civilization that prohibits poorer nations from producing life-saving vaccines in the midst of a global pandemic is a civilization that is morally bankrupt.” December 16, 2020. Twitter.