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Ethics debate over vaccine nationalism

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An invisible virus has left no stone unturned to bring the world to its knees. But to give up is not human. People across the world are fighting the virus; those infected are fighting to stay alive; doctors are fighting to save the infected; administraors are striving to control the spread. And at the apex level, we have the world leaders fighting for their people, to prioritize their health over others. This has paved way to a debate over the ethical dimensions concerning vaccine nationalism.

To be ethical is to do what is right. What constitutes right is claimed differently by different schools of ethics. School of Ethical Egoism would justify the ‘Americans First’ stand taken by the US. It says that an action taken to pursue self-interest is ethical. However, in the field of international relations, the school of Idealism champions the idea of considering people as humans rather than citizens of their respective countries. Thus, according to it, it is the human rights that the world leaders need to uphold, instead of being restricted to protecting just their citizens. On the other hand, Realist perspective would defend being pragmatic about securing one’s own interests. As per the realist school of thought, every country thinking about self-survival is justified in its approach. Moving further, there is the school of Ethical Altruism which goes a step further than idealists and advocates helping others without concerning about self. This idea, however, makes little sense in this context.

It is not ethical altruism if governments export crucial medicines in the name of altruism thereby leaving people in their own country high and dry. This is because you are termed an altruist if the negative effects of your positive actions fall on you, and not others. Thus it would be ethical to restrict export of vaccines if domestic supply is lagging behind the demand. But if the US has surplus vaccines and has enough room to export without compromising the health of Americans, it surely deserves the criticism it is getting for being egocentric. Talking about the ‘Utilitarian‘ school of thought, it advocates achieving maximum good for the maximum number. Thus, a country having an excess stockpile of vaccines or raw material to make vaccines is not justified in holding it back and not exporting to the countries in need.

Things would become more complex as we dive deeper into the ethical principles. In this debate, I would advocate the common good approach, which calls for universal welfare. It reflects in the recent decisions of the government of India, where it lifted off the restrictions on Hydroxychloroquine exports and also committed to provide vaccines to some of its neighbors for free. Corona-virus does not differentiate between an American, an Indian or a British. Hence it would be sensible and ethical to come together, transcending the man-made borders, to protect the humanity as a whole. US must step forward to help other countries facing vaccine shortage, and so shall others in their capacity. It would not be ethical to let people in other countries die today while you keep your own stock of essentials intact eyeing a future emergency.

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