Enlightened Self Interest and Vaccine Nationalism: A Perfect Combination for the 21st Century

“It is almost impossible to become a pious person, without having any self-interest left within you.”
― Mwanandeke Kindembo


Even as the United States and other industrialized countries seem to be turning the corner on the COVID-19 pandemic, poor countries are struggling to recover, primarily as a result of a lack of access to vaccinations.

Consequently, 75 countries signed a joint letter to the United Nations (UN) declaring, “the pandemic has brought severe impact across all spheres of human society, including on health and the loss of life, the exacerbation of poverty and hunger, disruption to economies, trade, societies and environments, and the enjoyment of human rights,” and expressing their concern “that the pandemic has a disproportionately heavy impact on women, older persons, youth, children, migrants and persons with disabilities, especially those in vulnerable situations.”

The letter was prompted because of what these countries decry as “vaccine nationalism,” the notion that wealthier countries purchase and stockpile large quantities of COVID-19 vaccines for their citizens even as poorer countries receive very little of the life-saving medication. Thomson Reuters describes the situation grimly: “The world is on the brink of ‘catastrophic moral failure’ in sharing COVID-19 vaccines, the head of the World Health Organization said on Monday, urging countries and manufacturers to spread doses more fairly around the world.”

At stake is the concept of equity, the idea that access to COVID-19 vaccines is a human right in light of both the severity and global nature of the pandemic. As the anti-poverty organization, Global Citizens contends, “Vaccine nationalism threatens progress on tackling the COVID-19 pandemic and risks exacerbating extreme poverty by making it harder for low-income countries to access vaccines and fight the virus.” 

The disparities between wealthier and poorer counties in the data are concerning, to say the least. The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) reports, “ As of September 9, only 2% of the population in LICs had received at least one vaccine dose, compared to 30% in lower-middle-income countries (LMICs), 54% in upper-middle-income countries (UMICs), and nearly two-thirds (65%) in high-income countries (HICs). In 6 LICs (25%), fewer than 1% had received at least one vaccine dose. By contrast, in 6 HICs (8%), more than 80% of the population had.” 

To make matters worse is the fact that wealthier countries are actually hoarding vaccines. This is understandable, at least psychologically speaking. The pandemic has been largely, at least up to this point, unpredictable. Every time we think we have a handle on it, an uncontrollable factor, such as viral variants, or vaccine hesitancy, emerges and sets us back. Acting out of fear, we stockpile vaccines in case of another unforeseen event. 


Vaccine Nationalism is becoming a hotly debated topic worldwide.
Source: iccwbo.org

While it’s easy to characterize this reaction as selfish or uncaring, there are deeper cognitive and physiological processes that explain what is happening. When stress overwhelms us, we cognitively “downshift,” meaning we act in ways to preserve ourselves.

This fear-based response was evidenced when the pandemic first took hold in the United States. People panicked and purchased obscene amounts of toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and food, ironically perpetuating and elongating shortages, shortages that fell disproportionately on people from poverty, hence the long lines for food banks.

In this sense, the act of widespread hoarding functions like a sociological pandemic itself, furthering disparities. According to Yahoo News, “This summer the European Union secured 900 million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine and reserved an option to double this amount by 2023. Even without exercising that option, the EU could give all its citizens at least six shots each. The U.S. has secured more than a billion shots, enough to inoculate every American at least five times.”

Although this is likely the first time the majority of us have ever seen a pandemic on this level, history shows that our behaviors are not unique.

By comparing our current pandemic to the  1665 London plague outbreak described by Daniel Defoe in  A Journal of the Year of the Plague, the authors of the article Persistent Patterns of Behavior: Two Infectious Disease Outbreaks 350 Years Apart, argue that regardless of the time period, pandemics “not only cause death, but also affect the living by creating an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty along with suffering due to prolonged economic deprivation.” 

However, the deeper problem is the global nature of a pandemic and the intimately interconnected nature of our international economies, a dynamic that was only in its nascent form in the 17th century. Setting aside the need for altruism for a moment, the reality is that our economies are interdependent in an unprecedented manner. A 2007 Human Development Report  explains this way:

“Better communication tools and falling transport costs have expanded the range of goods and services in national markets. The combination of a greater supply of cheap labour alongside technologies that facilitate trade means that “value chains” – the numerous steps involved in transforming materials, knowledge and labour into saleable products – are spread across the globe. What is new about the globalisation of the last 30 years or so is that we are nearing a point where connection is not the exception but the rule.”

A concrete example is the backup of materials in our ports due to disruptions in our supply chains, a phenomenon that has led to both scarcity and inflationary costs.

Or, as the letter states, “The pandemic knows no borders.”

Aaditya Mattoo, World Bank chief economist for East Asia and Pacific Region believes that denying pooer countries access to vaccines by hoarding supplies is a moral failure on the part of wealthier countries, averring, “I am a trade economist and all my life, I believed that production should happen where it is most efficient and then be distributed to where there is greatest need. But this crisis has disappointed me because instead of countries pursuing a globally optimal cooperative strategy, there has been what we call vaccine nationalism.” 

Mattoo may, without realizing it, be echoing in some form the sentiments of Adam Smith, the Scottish economist, philosopher, and pioneer of political economy, sometimes referred to lovingly, or disparagingly, depending on your orientation, as the Father of Capitalism, who famously said:

 “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

There is simply no denying the connection between pandemic’s health consequences and its wider implications with regard to economic suffering. Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Oxford and ex-vice president of the World Bank makes the following argument: “As long as some parts of the world are suffering from the coronavirus, the global economy can’t recover. As long as it’s present somewhere, the virus can mutate, it can move, and parts of the world economy will be devastated.”

From this perspective, providing vaccines for poorer countries, while an altruistic act, may also be seen as engaging in “enlightened self-interest,” an ethical concept proposed by the Enlightenment philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville. The idea behind enlightened self-interest is utilitarian in nature.

In essence, it states that by looking out for others, you ultimately help yourself in the process. While not the same phenomenon as altruism, enlightened self-interest is a powerful weapon to tackle the most pressing of social issues, including combating poverty and pandemics.

The reality is that philanthropy is often disguised as altruism when it is actually enlightened self-interest, with corporations supporting causes just as much out of a need for positive PR and tax deductions as a desire to address social justice issues as a moral imperative. 

In fact, investing now to ensure that everyone who needs vaccination has the opportunity to do so may actually be a sound economic investment. The International Chamber of Commerce has issued a report concluding that a “US$ 27.2 billion investment on the part of advanced economies – the current funding shortfall to fully capitalize the ACT Accelerator and its vaccine pillar COVAX – is capable of generating returns as high as 166x the investment.

And there is a very practical aspect to the implications of acting out of enlightened self-interest beyond the economic implications. Because the pandemic is global, we have a shared responsibility to stop its spread, if for nothing else, so we can resume some form of normalcy in our lives.

Despite the people at the fringes who enjoy either railing on about how vaccines are a government plot to usher in conformity and compliance as a precursor to a New World Order, or alternatively those who enjoy wearing masks and isolating to the point of pathology, most of us are in the middle. We just want this nightmare to finally end. We want to go to baseball games or attend concerts. We want to eat at restaurants or have family reunions free from fear. 

But to do this, we will need to help poorer countries get vaccinated so that we can put this behind us, at least to a significant degree. Regardless, at the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter. Whether we act out of enlightened self-interest or a deep and sincere passion for altruism is ultimately immaterial. But we cannot sit by and let this contagion continue to dominate our daily lives; because by doing nothing, we perpetuate the pandemic and the misery it brings. 

This is not merely a philosophical stance, as there is medical data to support taking action. A recent multi-university report found that “sustained transmission has led to the emergence of novel variants of the causative severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) virus with increased transmissibility, and against which vaccines may be less effective,” and therefore recommended “Coordinated vaccination campaigns across the world, combined with improved surveillance and appropriate nonpharmaceutical interventions to prevent case importation . . ..”

A particular problem of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is its ability to mutate. We saw this first hand when the delta variant swept the globe with a slew of new infections, once again filling hospitals with acute cases of COVID-19. Although most mutations do not make a virus more lethal or transmissible, some do. And while we can’t control the inner workings of how a virus mutates, we can control two related factors: time and opportunity.

 Johns Hopkins virologist Andrew Pekosz offers the following illustrative scenario: “Say, for example, it’s a one in a million chance that a mutation will be advantageous to the virus. If you let the virus replicate itself 900,000 times, odds are that the advantageous mutation will occur. But if you limit the overall replication of the virus to 1,000 times, then it’s much less likely that the random advantageous mutation is going to occur. And that’s where public health interventions really help us a lot during this pandemic—by reducing the total amount of virus replication and therefore reducing the chances that the virus can improve or adapt.”

Avery August, a Cornell University immunologist agrees with Pekosz, stating, “The more people that are vaccinated, the less likely new variants will evolve. If these countries do not have the financial resources, or the scientific infrastructure, to participate in the development of these vaccines, they tend to be left out of the benefits, or at the very least are the last in line to receive the benefits.”

This is why using vaccines and the idea of vaccine nationalism is so pressing. By not providing poorer countries with COVID-19 vaccines, we are providing time and opportunity for the virus to replicate and mutate, thus ensuring its survival and potential further perpetuation of the pandemic.

Consequently, we are not acting in either an altruistic manner or engaging in enlightened self-interest. Rather, we are potentially sowing the seeds of our destruction, or at the very least, extending the secondary ramifications of the pandemic, such as lockdowns, mask mandates, political unrest, increased unemployment, disruptions to our global supply chain, and the psychological stresses that are concomitant with this contagion. In short, by being selfish with our vaccines, we become our own worst enemy. 

There is one caveat that is worth exploring, however. China was the lead country in the letter sent to the UN. And although they have been a critic of the United States regarding a lack of “vaccine diplomacy,” the political antidote to vaccine nationalism, their efforts smack of deception and hypocrisy. 

Chong Ja Ian, assistant professor in the department of political science at the National University of Singapore, points out that “A commercial component is consistent with Beijing’s overall approach to outreach. Just like it provides loans rather than aid, it sells rather than donates vaccines.” In other words, China, for all its diplomatic bluster, has fallen short of its humanitarian hot air. And while China has started to reverse this trend by participating in COVAX — an international initiative seeking to ensure equitable access to vaccines, we should hold them accountable to lead by example.

After all, if this is a global effort, then we all have skin in the game, and a corresponding responsibility to help. So, whether it’s China, Russia, or European countries, everybody has to step up, not just the United States. At that point, when we are all working better toward the betterment of humankind, we can then say we have ushered in a new concept: enlightened global interest. Let’s hope that day is soon, rather than later. 

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