The politics of vaccines



The name of Russia’s COVID-19 vaccine is telling. Sputnik is of course the first satellite launched into low earth orbit in 1957, heralding the space age and race between the Soviet Union and America. Sputnik V is, according to its website, the first registered COVID-19 vaccine.

Main image: Woman receiving vaccine (Unsplash)

One can be forgiven for losing track of the different vaccines and their effectiveness thrown at us by various pharmaceutical companies. Despite talk against ‘vaccine nationalism’ the pharmaceutical companies are ultimately beholden to investors and shareholders. Their effectiveness percentages are pitches. They will sell to those who can afford to buy. And naturally that’s wealthy countries. Selling at cost is likely only to cover the initial rollouts, with future sales to be priced for profit. Whilst many hoarded toilet paper in the early days of the pandemic, vaccines are now being hoarded by the wealthiest nations.

Amnesty International has called for a human rights approach to prioritising vaccines, pointing out the vulnerability of communities such as Indigenous people in the Amazon who face a higher risk due to shortages of water, food and medical resources. Refugees living in unsanitary and crowded camps are also at increased risk. Some have even called out ‘vaccine thieves’.

There is an ethical question that surely needs to be addressed. Does it make moral sense for a country like say New Zealand to vaccinate its population when there is no community spread and when a country like Peru is seeing the second highest death case fatality ratio of the pandemic?

The ‘me first’ mentality which has dominated Western vaccine policy and investment has come under criticism by Amnesty and is emblematic of the non-cooperation that exists in the race to develop a vaccine. This non-cooperation is unsurprising. Rivalry in science logically reflects rivalry in economics and politics. Those who have primacy in a field can dictate the terms of its use. And so, the vaccine rat race is both local competition reflecting the ideals of innovative capitalism and a global articulation of political mistrust and fault lines.

Even the Chinese and Russians who generally find themselves closer politically because of their opposition to US hegemony, seem to practice a ‘me first’ philosophy. Despite Russia claiming that they had the first registered vaccine, China in fact has been vaccinating people earlier throughout 2020. Absent controlled published trials such conduct by China is worrying to say the least.


'Political scores have and continue to be played out in the shadow of the pandemic and towards the vaccination finish line.'


The US and the West have maintained their grip on scientific primacy for decades. If you’re an ally they will share that with you, if not then they will deny it to you. One only has to look at Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology. But this isn’t about weapons, military superiority or economic dominance. It’s a pandemic, and a universal approach is invariably the only way out of it. EU blockades on vaccine exports empower some governments to dictate to others, heralding in a politics of Eurocentrism.

Why not have the WHO allocate vaccines according to an ethical and equitable model underpinned by need and vulnerability rather than geography and wealth?

If there ever was a time for multilateralism than this is it. Instead, we had the sole superpower unilaterally withdraw its membership from the WHO only to be reversed by a centrist in Biden who by most measures subscribes to the idea of American exceptionalism and by extension an America first ideology — this is despite its southern neighbour Mexico having the highest case fatality ratio in the world at 8.5 per cent.

It’s difficult to not draw a parallel between the COVID-19 vaccine contest and the Human Genome Project, a project setup to decode the human genome. This project was primarily in the hands of Western scientific labs and academies. There was Chinese involvement, but it was in the minority, if not tokenistic. The HGP highlighted the conflict between public and private interests with a private company, Celera, endeavouring to patent sequences of the human genome. Bill Clinton, despite his political failures, managed to underscore Celera and declare the human genome part of our common heritage. That is unlikely however to be the case in relation to COVID-19 vaccines, especially if one goes by the conduct of nations.

Political scores have and continue to be played out in the shadow of the pandemic and towards the vaccination finish line. While there were numerous claims that the virus does not discriminate, healthcare, access to medical treatment and ultimately vaccination will. It does so based on where you live, the resources you have and your government’s ability to provide for its citizens. A universal effort should have been the immediate response, one that takes as its central principle a calculated concern for others, and a humanistic rather than a contested supremacy. The human interest deserves better.



Daniel SleimanDaniel Sleiman is a freelance writer and journalist based in Canberra.

Main image: Woman receiving vaccine (Unsplash)

Topic tags: Daniel Sleiman, vaccines, COVID-19, US, Russia, China



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We’ve been erased by Victorian politicians A proposed ban on 'conversion therapy' ignores the experiences of many formerly LGBT people Leah Gray I am an ex-lesbian, as well as someone who experienced gender dysphoria as a child. Now I am married to a patient and gracious man and have a young son. Ten years ago I voluntarily sought counsel from Christian psychologists, ministries, support networks and people who had walked before me. It was difficult, but I found relief and happiness. Every step of my journey will become illegal under the Victorian government’s Change or Suppression (Conversion) Practices Prohibition Bill. For the record, none of these avenues of support were ever harmful or coercive. In fact, the counselling I received saved my life. Ex-LGBT people like me are living proof that real and lasting change is possible, that suicides have been prevented, and that it is good for people to have the freedom to choose the type of help and support they want– including (shock horror) the religious kind. Leah Gray tells her own story. The reasoning behind this unsound Bill is based on a 2018 research paper from the Human Rights Law Alliance and La Trobe University, “Preventing Harm, Promoting Justice” (PHPJ). It was based on the experiences of a mere 15 participants. I’m not surprised that so few people stepped forward. Shame-based counselling is unequivocally not the common teaching or practice of Biblically-grounded churches and secular, clinician-based physical abuses were criminalised decades ago. I represent an organisation called Free To Change. I know from personal experience that there are many ex-LGBT voices like mine which testify to the life-saving benefits of counselling for unwanted homosexual or transgender feelings. We have documented this in a 116-page survey written by experts in their disciplines. But our experience and our research are being ignored by the Victorian government and by the media. When we attempt to speak up, we are dismissed as ignorant bigots by LGBT activists. This is a hurtful canard. Obviously, having once identified as homosexual or transgender, most of us still have friends who remained LGBT. Blackmail, manipulation and bullying are just some of the tactics used over the past 12 months to deny us a voice in the public square. You might think that ignoring us might be justifiable because only a handful of us exist. Indeed, it appears that way from media reports. But the reality is very different. In fact, there are five times as many ex-LGBTs cited in our report who have been helped by counselling than LGBTs who claimed to have been harmed in the PHPJ report. Fundamentally, the evidence which the Victorian government is using to sell this legislation to the public is seriously flawed. Scientists test a hypothesis by examining a range of possible explanations. However, the authors of the PHPJ paper interviewed only participants who claimed to have been harmed by “conversion therapies”. They made no attempt to interview former LGBT people who sought out, consented to and benefited from the counselling and support. They were seeking to prove a preconceived conclusion, not to collect objective data. This is not science; it is activism. As the Free to Change report states, “All that is necessary to counter-act their claims that ‘conversion therapy’ is universally damaging and harmful to the extent that it demands criminal legal penalties, is evidence that just one person who experienced unwanted same-sex attraction or just one person who experienced gender dysphoria, has found lasting change and/or relief through counselling. This report presents the collated experiences of 78 such people.” Our research shows that the support and counsel that participants voluntarily sought was helpful for their mental and physical health, with significant improvements in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-image, and relationships. In addition, their unwanted same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria was significantly reduced. And I know that there are many more people like us. Many ex-LGBT people declined to participate because they feared personal and professional blowback from LGBT activists. The government also claims to have completed a wide community consultation process using the Engage Victoria survey. However, the wording of that survey made it functionally impossible to register disagreement. Despite many written submissions entered by those in my community testifying to the positive experiences of ex-LGBT people, we were never acknowledged or quoted in the Consultation Outcomes Report. Had they listened to people like us, their conclusion that “change in sexual orientation is impossible” and that “all conversion therapy practices are harmful” simply could not be sustained. To recap, the “research” that has directly informed draconian legislation that is now set to restrict the freedoms of six million Victorians is based on only 15 participants who represent only one particular community. The Bill is the most extreme in the world in terms of how broad its definition of a “suppression practice” is and also in introducing extreme punishments of up to 10 years’ jail and $10,000 in fines. We’ve been told that the LGBT community is an oppressed and powerless minority. Yet it is clear to me that it holds and wields great power to suppress and change voices which do not promote its narrative. The hypocrisy is truly ugly. A SUMMARY OF THE RESEARCH BY ‘FREE TO CHANGE’ Leah Gray lives in Melbourne. More by Leah Gray
PHIL VINCENT ROWAN | 04 February 2021

It was a privilege to read this testimony in a world where scientific truth is discarded in favour of personal opinion. Similar disproving testimonies come from survivors of suicide, some 90% of whom state that they didn't want to die and make no further attempts on their own life. But then in Victoria the people are stuck with a radical, destructive government when it comes to matters of human life and its living. (eg the most liberal and retrogressive abortion law in the world and legal euthanasia).
john frawley | 06 February 2021

They are not vaccines, it is illegal to give them without informed consent, they are not animal tested which is a breach of the Nuremberg Code and all Australian media on all platforms should stop damn well peddling them They are not now and nor will they ever be needed.
Marilyn | 07 February 2021

Thanks for the article. I'd venture to say most of us now know more than we did about viri, pandemics and vaccines than we did 12 months ago (like it or not)...after being fed a never-ending news stream of "professional -ologists" and politicians repeatedly reciting their alignment with the science and statistics and "facts", even though sometimes they didn't exist; Scomo spent 2 weeks claiming "our modelling" as a basis for various actions but eventually was discovered to be using some international publications. That's the politics; proclaim some wisdom to predict some outcome. There would be few readers who wouldn't understand the numerical term "R (0)" of the virus or its various UK, African or American mutations but we aren't being given the number...why? Well, there comes a time when we need to be treated like a nation of Pollyannas and believe in our politicians and trust them to both know and do "the right thing"; Australia will wheel out our vaccination program while we have zero community transmission but ignore the immediate plight of our northern neighbors PNG. I hope you can stomach the economic rationale which explains we need to reopen Australia for tourism which makes it alright that poorer, needful nations don't receive the vaccine.
ray | 07 February 2021

Most disappointing to see that ES has chosen to publish uninformed, staggeringly ignorant and dangerously erroneous commentary. Thank God a vaccine has been developed and that we have a government that has undertaken to protect us all. This disease does not just kill. It also produces serious chronic ill-health in the survivors. The anti- vaxxer conspiracy theorists and those who publish or otherwise promote their theories need to understand that any influence they bring to bear that induces someone to refuse vaccination makes them accessory causes of death and illness if as a result that person contracts the disease, passes it on to others, dies or is committed to a life of chronic illness. Ignorance defeating truth yet again! God help us.
john frawley | 08 February 2021

John Frawley: ‘The anti- vaxxer conspiracy theorists and those who publish or otherwise promote their theories need to understand that any influence they bring to bear that induces someone to refuse vaccination makes them accessory causes of death and illness if as a result that person contracts the disease, passes it on to others, dies or is committed to a life of chronic illness.’ As usual, secular reflection can be tested by religious logic. We are told that one can be a stumbling block to another’s faith but nowhere in the text does it actually say that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. If you can only be a stumbling block by deliberate or negligent bad faith, how is an antivaxxer who has come to his conclusion through the best of his intellectual ability different from a sincere Protestant?
roy chen yee | 11 February 2021

As a commentator who usually makes much rational commentary, you have surprised me, Roy! If someone derives "through the best of his intellectual ability" that daylight comes not from the sun but from a massive light bulb manufactured by Martians, that does not make his belief true and does not place any obligation on anyone of the rest of humanity to accept and act upon that viewpoint. Anti-vaxxers fall into this league and any influence they might have in the management of lethal or debilitating disease should be inadmissible and censored out of the public domain. The anti-scientists are a different mob from the anti- philosophists and contra-theologians of Protestantism who at least have some credibility in their beliefs.
john frawley | 12 February 2021

Thanks, John, for being up front about ‘censored’. Life is too short not to have some fun with speculation. Censoring is akin to convicting without trial. A trial is where you have the opportunity to speak to explain yourself. If the right to speak is sacred, there should be a very high bar against depriving someone of its use. Is speech ‘sacred’ or merely something which expedites? For some reason, the Father didn’t ‘make’ creation, suggesting the use of ‘hands’, or ‘thought’ it into being (which also would have been a sensible way of expressing the idea); he ‘spoke’ it (which is arty, but good art has layered purposes). For some reason, the Son isn’t the ‘agent’ or the ‘executor’ or the ‘minister’ of the Father but his ‘Word’. What’s this theme to do with the mouth all about? Perhaps, as images and likenesses of God, we inherit the art, aesthetics and purpose of that theme? Like the Devil, we have no independent creativity, we can only ape God. The Son only does what the Father is doing. If, for us, speech is the first important thing God did, in imitation, speech might be the most important thing we do.
roy chen yee | 15 February 2021


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