The CBC has provided a reasonable summary of the program and the controversy here.
To summarize, Canada has long been an anchor donor to international efforts to increase vaccination rates around the world.
So when the World Health Organization, the European Commission, and France launched a global campaign to improve access to COVID-19 vaccines, Ottawa signed up.
The program asks wealthy countries to pre-purchase enough doses to vaccinate up to 20% of their own populations as well as an equivalent number of people from poorer states.
The theory behind the program is that in order to end this pandemic, we need to inoculate an overwhelming majority of the world’s population before variants of COVID-19 emerge that the vaccines can’t handle (or at least can’t handle well).
Since we know that variants are more likely to arise when the virus is spreading uncontrollably, the best way to defeat COVID-19 is therefore not necessarily to vaccinate your own population first, but rather to get the number of cases around the world under sufficient control that we encounter fewer variants during the process of vaccination.
Theoretically, then, every country in the world should be a part of COVAX; money that wealthy countries have independently invested in vaccines should have been funnelled through the consortium; and the vaccination process should privilege not just individuals at the highest risk of death, but also locations where the virus is at the greatest risk of mutating.
In the real world, things have evolved differently.
The Trump administration refused to join COVAX and made vaccinating Americans its top priority.
Without the US, COVAX never stood a chance of reaching its full potential.
As a result, the Trudeau government did what successive Canadian governments have done since the end of the Second World War:
It looked out for itself (and its re-election prospects) by purchasing as many doses of as many vaccines as possible, but also joined COVAX to demonstrate Canada's continued commitment to a global solution to the ongoing pandemic.
Canadians believe in international cooperation, but we aren’t martyrs. If the Americans (and the Russians, and a handful of smaller countries) are intent on undermining the global effort, then we’re going to take care of ourselves, too.
Critics of Ottawa’s decision to accept the Oxford-AstraZeneca doses come from both sides of the political spectrum.
On the left, the Liberals have been accused of taking vaccines way from countries in greater need.
Personally, I find this suggestion spurious. For one, our government has been clear from the beginning that it would take its share, so no one is actually missing out.
More important, COVAX is not a charity. It was designed as an investment that was, at least theoretically, utterly consistent with the national interest.
Ottawa should continue to treat it that way, lest the Canadian public question our contribution in its entirety. The last thing we need is for future governments to propose a “Canada first” approach to international pandemic response.
Advocates from the political right want to keep the 1.9 million doses, but suggest that the Trudeau government should never have put Canadians in the position to need them in the first place.
That argument is also unconvincing.
This interview with the co-chair of Canada’s vaccine task force makes it clear that Ottawa, while imperfect, was hardly lackadaisical.
And again, an every-country-for-itself response to a global catastrophe should never be our starting point.
It seems to me that the Trudeau government’s real failure here has been in communication.
Consider the line Ottawa has used in response to questions about COVAX:
“Our top priority is that Canadians have vaccines.”
If that were truly the case, then we should not have invested in COVAX at all.
In reality, we have been trying to balance two competing priorities – (1) vaccinating Canadians as quickly as possible and (2) minimizing the capacity of the virus to mutate – ever since the United States decided to go it alone.
Apart from leveling with Canadians, Ottawa would do well to pursue two complementary policies:
First, along with other like-minded and committed multilateralists, we should be lobbying the Biden administration to invest in a successor to COVAX to respond to the next pandemic.
Second, and I suspect this is being done already, we should be developing a plan to share our excess vaccines once the situation at home is under control.
For a sense of Ottawa’s history of pragmatism in international affairs, take at look at this edited collection by the late Greg Donaghy. The essays by Denis Stairs and John English are particularly revealing.
I regret to note that Canadian foreign policy lost yet another treasured scholar recently: James Eayrs has passed away. For a sense of his outsized academic contribution to the study of Canada and its place in the world, check out this special issue of International Journal.
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