On Thursday, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. would share 75% of its unused COVID-19 vaccine supply, releasing 80 million doses to other countries by the end of the month. “These are doses that are being given, donated free and clear to these countries, for the sole purpose of improving the public health situation and helping end the pandemic,” said U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, though he clarified that the U.S. government “will retain the say” on where exactly they go (MSN). As the State Department’s Twitter account declared, “No country is safe until all countries are safe” (Twitter).
The United States will immediately give 25 million doses to the United Nations’ COVAX vaccine sharing program (AP). It seems like an incredible number, but only until you do the math. Africa, which saw a 20% increase in cases over the last two weeks, will receive 5 million vaccines, enough for less than 4% of the continent’s residents (AP). 6 million doses will go to Latin America, fewer doses than people in El Salvador, the region’s 17th most populous country. 7 million will go to South and Southeast Asia, a quantity less than 3% of the population of Indonesia alone.
This development comes after months of vaccine hoarding by the United States and other rich nations. In February, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres announced that, while 75% of all vaccines had been administered by just 10 countries, 130 nations had not received a single vaccine at all (MSN). In the words of Georgetown Law’s Lawrence Gostin, “Rich countries have signed pre-purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers. So [they] have bought up most of the world’s vaccine supplies.”
The United States government bought 1.2 billion vaccine doses, despite having a population of only 330 million (Salon). If everyone in the U.S. received two doses, a half billion shots would be left over, property of the U.S. government. In fact, the U.S. bought purchase options on enough vaccines to vaccinate the entire U.S. population five times (NBC).
American vaccine “charity” comes too late for thousands of people who died because the United States blocked their countries from importing vaccines.
Aside from appearing benevolent with its “gift” of hoarded vaccines, the U.S. government also gets to use vaccine donations as a political weapon, rewarding “friends like the Republic of Korea, where our military shares a command” (White House) while maintaining an embargo that prevents Cuba from importing syringes necessary for full vaccination (Code Pink).
That fact that the U.S. government prevented life-saving vaccines from reaching desperate people for weeks on end is not the only reason for its complicity. Despite racist paranoias about immigrants and Asian people as disease vectors, American business travelers and tourists have played a crucial role in spreading coronavirus around the world.
Last March, 44 University of Texas students tested positive for COVID after returning from Cabo San Lucas (KXAN). Four months later, Today published a list of countries still open to American tourism “for those trying to capitalize on less expensive plane tickets” (Today). In November, an American teen in the Cayman Islands escaped from mandatory quarantine to attend her boyfriend’s jet ski event maskless (People). One of the hardest-hit areas in Mexico is Cancún, which has actually seen more tourists this year than last (USA Today). One Pittsburgh police officer whined “we’re being held hostage down here” after he and his wife were forced to stay in their luxury resort room after testing positive for COVID during a mid-pandemic trip to Cancún last month (WPXI). Mexico ranks fourth in total deaths from COVID (CNN).
Many countries and regions are reluctant to impose stricter entry controls since their economies are almost entirely dependent on tourism, “mainly as a result of their history under Western imperialism” (Skift). American tourists felt entitled to go on vacations that turned their destinations as petri dishes. Their government hoarded vaccines to save for them upon their return home. Thousands of people, mostly working-class people of color in poor nations, have lost their lives as a result. The Biden administration’s “charity” is too little, too late.
Fortunately, community organizations around the world are coming together to demand more. The Progressive International is organizing a global Summit for Vaccine Internationalism (Progressive International) while groups like CODEPINK are providing medical supplies internationally (CODEPINK). When the American government positions itself as a compassionate donor of its hoarded goods, we should remember Dr. King’s words: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring” (American Rhetoric).
The Biden administration’s vaccine sharing announcement comes after the U.S. blocked poor countries from vaccine access for months, costing untold numbers of lives.
The U.S. government bought over half a billion more vaccine doses than would be necessary to vaccinate the entire population.
American citizens played an outsized role in spreading COVID to countries dependent on U.S. tourism.