The Ethics of Non-Cooperation: COVID Vaccine Questions

September 3, 2020

COVID-19 samples being studied at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Spring, Maryland, June 2020.
CREDIT: U.S. Army photo by Mike Walters

This article first appeared on the Ethics & International Affairs blog.

One of the assumptions that Bill Gates, among others, made as the coronavirus pandemic burst onto the world this past Spring was that the disease would force cooperation among nations, even among rivals and competitors. However, COVID-19 arrived during a particular point of stress in global affairs—a situation that Damjan Krnjević and I described under the rubric of "great power populism"—and so we predicted that cooperation in search of a cure would most likely be subordinated to national goals.

In the past several days, we have seen confirmation of that prediction. The United States will not work with the World Health Organization in pursuing a common, shared approach—in part because the Trump administration does not want to take the pressure COVID-19 is placing on other countries to be lifted by an effective American subsidy of a cure—that would then allow competitors to continue to fund their efforts which challenge America's position in the world. If the United States can cross the finish line first with an effective vaccine, the Trump administration preference is that it should be used first for Americans, and then offered to others who either support the positions of the Trump administration with regard to international policy, or to those willing to pay. It follows the transactional mindset which has dominated how the United States currently views global affairs.

The fracas between China and Canada, however, reflects a different set of ethical calculations, but one where pursuit of a common vaccine is subordinated to defending or promoting other values and interests. Canada is willing to place a greater value on defending the rule of law and human rights even if it means delaying a vaccine, whereas for China, securing its sovereignty to act as the government pleases in internal affairs trumps accelerating the timetable for a cure. For both countries, the pandemic is not such an overriding crisis—and to extend Gates' World War II metaphor forward, coronavirus is not the equivalent of Hitler (or Tojo) who must be stopped at any cost, and even with the requirement to work with allies in the fight with whom one has substantial policy and ethical differences, as the Western allies and the Soviet Union under Stalin did.

Interruptions in any Chinese-Canadian collaboration will also strengthen the narrative that in such matters it is critical for democracies to work with each other rather than with China—and that delays may be desirable if in the long-term any vaccine that is produced does not come with human rights compromises.

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