Vaccination Politicization: Misuse of Pandemic Response in Europe

Vaccines, in the eyes of some, have become the modern panacea, but are scarce. Some countries promise quick and stable access to them, but only on certain conditions. Vaccines may be used for political extortion on the basis of fear and instability, as well as populists’ attempts to stay in power. Today vaccines do not only control bodily health, but international and domestic politics as well.

Vaccines as sources of threats and influence

Since the beginning of 2020, vaccine development has become the top priority for countries and companies alike. However, modernity has shaped the way vaccines can be used. Used not only to heal the sick and return the societies to normalcy, in the hands of firms and countries they have become tools of influence in international relations.

Several cases of clear vaccine-access abuses and extortion can be seen worldwide. China and Russia, two countries that have nationalized their vaccines, are hard at work trying to “sell” them to other states. Money, however, is not their only interest. Vaccines have been not only politicized, but also securitized. 

For Baltic countries, Ukraine and EU on the whole the politicization of vaccines is contributing to a heightened security risk – due to the ongoing Russian hybrid threat – as well as political and ideological friction. Democracies that have battled against Russian influence are now stuck between Russian vaccines and the EU’s effort to have a unified vaccination strategy, as well as extending support to other countries, like Ukraine.

European Union’s failure to timely prepare for the “western” vaccines distribution, provides a setback in achieving its humanitarian goals. While Ursula von der Leyen reaffirmed the EU’s support for Ukraine, there are little tools that can actually be used. Struggling EU members would be forced to choose between getting to normalcy themselves or providing the vaccines for other countries. With AstraZeneca fall-out and limited distribution of other already tested vaccines, state-produced Sputnik V (Russia) and Sinopharm (China) are ready to be shipped both in Europe and worldwide. The problem is, the price is not merely in currency.

This situation opens the EU and other countries up to political extortion and security risks associated with vaccination. Refusal to consider the purchase of the Russian vaccine may even generate unrest and distrust. Tired from the restrictions that shattered their way of life, people cannot help but ask: “Why care for politics if we want to return to normal life? Why not just buy the vaccines from states we do not otherwise support?”. Democratic ideology and solidarity is now clashing with hopes of recovering from the pandemic. This criticism and frustration may be amplified, as propagating discord in foreign societies is one of the hybrid threat tactics used by the Kremlin.

 

“Without focusing on how legitimate Russian and Chinesse vaccines are, it is instead more important to question what the conditions of obtaining them are.”

 

These vulnerabilities are now being fully exploited by China and Russia. Without focusing on how legitimate these vaccines are, it is instead more important to question what the conditions of obtaining them are. Russian and Chinese activity suggests they structure their approach to dissemination of their vaccines around absolute gains, both material and political. Reliance on either of these states for the vaccine will cause dependancy, and allow for a new avenue of leverage. China or Russia could halt the supply for whatever reason, damaging the vaccination infrastructure, and upset the strategy and endanger people who were supposed to be vaccinated soon.

 

Misuse of vaccines in international relations

Recent news suggests that Turkey is in collusion with China, trying to secure the Sinopharm vaccine regardless of the process of its medical certification. Reportedly, Turkey is shipping Uighur activists back to China in exchange for the vaccine purchasing rights. While not exactly something new, Turkey has stepped up the effort after further pressure from Beijing.

The persecuted minority was previously sheltered by Turkey, but now that there is a need to “protect the majority” from the pandemic, Erdogan is making necessary, in his mind, sacrifices. But it boils down to human trading, with implications that sold-out Uighurs will be persecuted, will suffer and might not survive in China. This is not something the EU would expect of an allied state and with this pandemic, the rift between EU and Turkey will grow even further.

Another example of vaccine politics can be found in Ukraine. Ukraine, refuses to import Sputnik V from Russia. Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal is concerned that Russia is trying to push its vaccine onto Ukrainian regions as a “tool for influencing” them, especially those hostile to Kyiv. For example, the promise of procurement of vaccines for Donbass and Luhansk will strengthen the Russian influence in the area, swaying people more towards Russia that employs cold calculus under the pretense of humanitarian help.

Despite the EU promising to stand up for Ukrainians and support them with vaccines, the EU itself is undergoing political turbulence in regard to what vaccine to use and availability for member-states. Ukraine, however, so far has no luxury of choice – they are stuck with either taking Sputnik or waiting until other, more wealthy and powerful states fulfill their own demand for certified vaccines. So far, Ukraine has managed to secure 12 million AstraZeneca vaccines, which is majorly insufficient for a country of 40 million.

For Ukraine the question of vaccination is thus politically motivated. Even if we consider that Sputnik V is a safe and effective vaccine, Ukraine would not take it to protect the population. Since the Crimean crisis, the population was changed in the way it sees Russia. Right now, Russia is a mortal enemy to all that is Ukrainian, slowly strangulating Ukraine throughout the DIMEFIL spectrum. 

When it comes to addressing health issues, this reality of being stuck in a struggle with Russia leaves Ukrainians no choice but to refuse the Russian vaccine. Otherwise the ideological and symbolic conflict, resulting from the purchase of vaccines, would devastate the existing mentality, as well as emboldening ultra-nationalists in taking action against the democratically elected government. Exactly what the Kremlin is hoping for.

 

Vaccination politics – fuel for populism

For certain European states with rising populism, Russian and Chinese vaccines are a source of national support or a means to discern themselves from the EU collective. The clearest example would be Hungary and its prime-minister Victor Orban, who has long desired to build a national state based on individuality, not solidarity with the EU. 

Orban promised his citizens Hungary would be the first nation with the vaccines, one of his many promises that can be categorized as a populist attempt to gain approval. Granted, he has failed to uphold his original promise, and is now going full speed towards buying uncertified Russian and Chinese vaccines, perhaps as a way to maintain his reputation.

In this case, the misuse is mutual, as the goals of both the Kremlin and Orban’s Fidesz align – weakening the EU while strengthening internal support for their governments. Viktor Orban does not have to fear Russian or Chinese influence as they are partners in crime, so to say. Considering how deeply authoritarian Hungary has become in the previous decade, these processes cannot be averted by the Hungarian people themselves. The recent visit of Czech Republic’s prime-minister Andrej Babis to Hungary and Serbia provides further legitimacy for hawkish vaccine politics.

Czech’s government is in a deep political crisis and Babis is rapidly losing grip on power, in the form of public support. While initially resistant to the idea, he has recently visited Hungary and Serbia to discuss Sputnik V application. Serbia has long been supported by Russia and China as one of their few allies in Europe, and as such, there is no surprise which vaccines Serbia is getting. However, Babis’ visit strengthens the legitimacy of both Hungary’s and Serbia’s vaccination strategy reliant on non-approved vaccines.

While Babis said he will not administer the Sputnik V vaccine before the EU’s approval, he has still hinted he might be willing to stock up on it. It is possible his visit to Serbia and private talk with Aleksandar Vucic must have revealed that it is too soon to rely on Sputnik V for populism reasons. If proven dangerous, the vaccine would backfire disastrously. 

Thanks to a 2001 EU directive, it is possible to administer unlicensed medical products in response to such emergencies. However, Babis might be showing caution due to the Sputnik V’s safety concerns, as well as trying not to risk further undermining the EU’s effort at a unified vaccination strategy.

For Babis, having vaccines while other EU nations are struggling with supply, might be one of the final attempts to regain political support in the Czech Republic. Even so Babis, still remains closer to the EU than Orban. He still attempts to balance between domestic populism and the fact that the Czech Republic is an EU nation, sharing its ideals and structural unity.

 

“The lack of international leadership to unify the strategy in solving the pandemic results in political disillusionment, opportunism and internal struggles.”

 

In 2021 vaccination gained aspects previously left out of securitization efforts. It is now a security threat, as well as a social and political one. The lack of international leadership to unify the strategy in solving the pandemic results in political disillusionment, opportunism and internal struggles. 

This lack of clear strategy and communication enables states to influence and hijack the narrative in foreign countries, making it serve their purpose. On the other hand, vaccination is not about just getting cured anymore, “how” and “by whom” became an extremely important public discourse topic. With merely the idea of getting vaccinated polarizing societies on the same level as political preferences do, it is hard to imagine a smooth transition towards normalcy happening any time soon.

About author: Danila Naumov

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