Vietnam Skirts Vaccine Politics

There is good news coming from Vietnam. The country has successfully overcome the deadly fourth wave of COVID-19 pandemic which is now witnessing a decline in new infections and virus related deaths. Consequently, several Vietnamese cities have lifted stringent lockdowns, schools are reopening in phased manner, domestic airlines have begun to operate, people are travelling for tourism, and the labour are returning to their workplaces. Vietnam’s industrial south, in particular Ho Chi Minh City which is the economic engine of the country, is now bouncing back and helping recover the shrunken the economy.

The pandemic resulted in drop in Vietnam's gross domestic product to 6.17% for the July-September period, the first decline since 2000 on a quarterly basis. The government has spent over VND30 trillion ($1.32 billion) from the state budget on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. The Vietnamese economy should show some promising results for the last quarter of 2021.

At the time of writing, there were 148 new cases and 11 deaths on October 22, taking the total to 117,500 cases and 2,715 deaths. Vietnam has vaccinated around 45.3 million people with at least one Covid-19 vaccine shots including 18.2 million people who have received both shots. Notwithstanding these very promising figures. It still requires additional stocks and some countries, particularly the US and China have promised Hanoi their unconditional support to deliver vaccines.

Earlier this month, the US dispatched Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to two destinations in Vietnam; Ho Chi Minh City received 1,209,780 doses and 789,750 doses arrived in Hanoi. These consignments follow the four previous US COVAX deliveries to Vietnam totaling 7.5 million vaccine doses bringing the total to 9.5 million doses so far, and more is planned. It is worth mentioning that the US government has committed $1 billion investment in Vietnam’s health infrastructure to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic including a commitment of more than $26.7 million in COVID-19 related assistance to Vietnam since the start of the pandemic.

Though a late comer, China too has supported Vietnam with vaccines and around 45 million Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine were contracted in September 2021. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s trip to Vietnam on September 10-12 was opportune moment for the Vietnamese government to announce purchase of 20 million doses of Chinese vaccines.  

South Korea announced plans to supply 1.1 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine to Vietnam. Similarly, Japanese Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu has announced aid of 500,000 Covid-19 vaccine doses to Vietnam which totals to 4.08 million doses supplied by Tokyo. Japan has also supplied 300 vaccine storage refrigerators to Vietnam via the UNICEF. Germany too has supplied Vietnam 852,480 doses of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

However hard one may deny, the COVID-19 pandemic has been politicized and States have leveraged it to achieve political goals. Formulations such as Vaccine Nationalism, Democratization of Vaccine, Vaccine Diplomacy, Vaccine Alliance, Equitable global access to vaccines, equitable global health approach, India-South Africa effort at the WTO to waive vaccine patents (TRIPs) for the coronavirus pandemic, etc. have entered the lexicon and practice of contemporary international relations.

Global leaders joined in at the “Global COVID-⁠19 Summit: Ending the Pandemic and Building Back Better” announcing “ambitious targets in three critical areas for ending this pandemic and preventing and preparing for the next: Vaccinate the World; Save Lives Now; and Build Back Better”.

Interestingly, vaccine became part of the Quad discourse wherein US, Australia, India and Japan agreed to deliver one billion doses of coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2022. The US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan announced “with Indian manufacturing, US technology, Japanese and American financing and Australian logistics... [we] committed to delivering up to one billion doses," to the ASEAN States and as well as "the Pacific and beyond".

Notwithstanding the politicization of the vaccine, Vietnam has exhibited a sound and mature pandemic-vaccine related foreign policy. It has welcomed support from any country that came forward to help it in fighting the pandemic and continues to do so.

It has been noted that there is clear preference in Vietnam for US or European vaccines over Chinese products. This is based on a review of social media networks wherein Vietnamese people prefer western vaccines unless there are no other choices. It is also an outcome of both quality of Chinese products as also from Beijing’s “long history of suspicion that has been inflamed by recent Chinese actions in the South China Sea”. Apparently, Vietnam was the last country in ASEAN to receive Chinese-made vaccines.

Be that as it may, the above narrative illustrates that Vietnam has not shied from receiving COVID-19 vaccines from multiple sources and may even have pushed back at any attempts by the US or China who may have planned to seek political gains through supply of vaccines.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is Consultant Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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