The global vaccination campaign is underway – it is the only realistic way out of the horrendous impact of the novel coronavirus that struck the world 18 months ago. Fortunately, we have more than a handful of seemingly effective and safe vaccines from the US, UK, Europe, China and Russia. It is not possible to overstate the miracle that these have come along so quickly and effectively. Although some have had years of preparations, we are lucky not only that they exist but also that in many cases they seem to be able to be tweaked to deal with the continued emergence of new variants.
There are broadly two categories of countries that exist in today’s world: Those who have controlled the spread of the virus and essentially put up physical barriers and where track and trace systems can be effective (China, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand for example) and those who have lost control of the virus (pretty much every country on earth except a few like Tanzania and Turkmenistan where the governments continue to claim they have been untouched by the virus – despite the former recently losing its President to “Covid-like symptoms”).
There are of course subcategories in this situation – some countries are becoming overwhelmed (such as Brazil), while others are seeing local transmission but are managing to keep things seemingly under control. The Central Asian countries, for now, seem to be in this sub-category, even if the real case rates and mortality are likely being under-reported or mis-reported (there have been many more cases of “pneumonia” than usual). Of course, these governments are used to implementing strict measures that have enabled them to curtail the spread of the pandemic and avoid the tragic human tolls seen among many of their neighbours. But the economies of Central Asia have been significantly impacted. Nearby Russia and China have focused on their own problems first, which leaves Central Asia in a precarious economic position that may give rise to further unexpected social or political instability in the months and years to come.
The world faces a new problem though – vaccine nationalism and inequality are putting up barriers to an effective program to vaccinate the world. Leaders are being slow to recognise that until the world is vaccinated, new variants will emerge to haunt them. The Economist put out a haunting map showing that Central Asia will only be vaccinated from later 2022 to early 2023. COVAX is helping, but distribution is challenging – for example, Kyrgyzstan has stated a lack of funds for the cold storage chain required for Pfizer thereby limiting vaccine options it can employ.
With the US and EU being extremely protective on vaccines for their populations first, Russia and China have an eye to vaccine diplomacy and influence in Central Asia. Russia is constantly projecting the superiority of its vaccine, Sputnik V versus those of the West. China’s one dose, fridge temperature vaccine (Cansino) will be tempting, but countries like Kazakhstan are seeking to have alternatives, agreeing to produce Sputnik V locally as well as developing their own vaccine. If the UK/EU spat currently playing out teaches us anything, it is that security of supply comes from diversity of supply. But with diversity comes the risk that diplomacy will not shroud the disappointment from some actors to see that their product is being at best shared with and at worst shunned for a competitor. Central Asia is clearly emerging as a key arena for the continued Great Game of influence channelled through the barrel of a needle.
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