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The dispersal of a COVID vaccine is disjointed, with Western nations as the leading culprits. The needs of the Global South are being ignored by pharmaceutical companies, broken deals, vaccine nationalism, competing vaccine choices and availability, and fights over intellectual property rights.

The Global North will badly delay a concerted and effective response to the vaccine needs of the Global South. These nations are still in a panic about vaccinating their own populations. Rich nations will perform a late task rather badly, amidst quarrels and delays in which political and commercial interventions completely waylay any serious attempts at getting to the solution directly and transparently, and – above all- quickly.

There is no time to nuance this in prolonged diplomacy, in a slow forging of working relations between governments, international NGOs, large transnational enterprises, and the multitude of mass media outlets that could otherwise emerge as useful partners to the major players through information dispersal and networks of local expertise.

Perhaps we should not expect much mindfulness in all this. The richest nations, the ones with knowledge and infrastructure, are also those that are the worst examples of COVID infection and mortality. In the main, they entered the COVID era on low growth rates and stagnant productivities, a long-term failure to grasp the lessons of the recession of 2008. They had for much the same length of time generated political systems that abounded with simplistic populism, aberrant social media, and arrogant leaderships that increasingly eschewed hard-won diplomacy. Too often the talk was global, the action not much beyond the village.

Pursuing globalism is one course of action but might take too long to be truly important. The present indicators alter daily but generally point in the wrong direction. Concerted action could feasibly arise through existing or new international institutions, but the contradictions would still remain to slow things down, to work as forces of inertia at a time when thoughtful movements are needed. Rich nations have been bad exemplars. Rich nations are absorbed in the political and economic repercussions to themselves, not sufficiently aware of the looming global truth – delayed recovery in poor nations will further inhibit recovery amongst the rich and prolong their quarrels and escalate their conflicts. Yet such extended depression in the Global South will be one result of vaccine failure, and perhaps see the beginnings of longer-term cultural, political, and regional impacts of prolonged virus agonies, generating a downwards global spiral.

It seems that the obvious alternative is East Asia to help lead the Global South out of this mess. Countries like China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Hong Kong could provide vaccines and all ancillary elements at little to no cost to poor nations.

It is true that even in combination this group of nations does not yet have the institutional, investment, and technological power of the rich nations of Europe and the U.S., but on all these elements the balance is moving towards them, and the trading relations with the Global South are already of greater importance. They have been on a high growth trajectory since 2008. They are developing important trading and investment relationships with other growing systems such as India and Brazil.

If they have the wherewithal for global action, East Asian nations also have plenty of motivation. In particular, China has lost chance after chance at gaining soft-power through positive global interventions or of repairing relations with important economies within the region – particularly Japan and Taiwan. In terms of officially measured Overseas Development Assistance, East Asian presence is hardly visible. The redefinition of vaccine dispersal as their official aid, equivalent to even say, 50% of the level of ODA/GDP% shown in the UK, Germany, or the United States (around 0.3% of East Asian GDP), would remain below the existing levels of high donors but would amount to well over $50 billion in one year, enough to fund all the vaccines needed plus most if not all costs of transport, monitoring, and delivery. Furthermore, if this vaccine aid pact focused on all nations (without other discriminations) with per capita annual incomes of under $8,000, the impact on many millions of people would be staggering.

So, even keeping all vaccine aid from the East Asia pact at a level of only 50% of the general level of annual ODA assistance amongst rich nations the funding would be sufficient to solve the problem. In addition, East Asia is well placed for quick organisation, and once funding levels of this sort were announced all major NGOs would automatically offer expert assistance. The international flow of goodwill would be overwhelming and possibly last a lot longer than COVID-19.

This schema should not be viewed as hopelessly normative or utopian. It is positive and systematic, for it combines self-interest with humanitarian outcomes that are clear and transparent. By taking control of the purchase of all best-practice vaccines for poor nations, such a pact would determine the effective price of such vaccines and East Asia would have every interest in bargaining en masse and exerting both market and non-market pressure on private enterprise to make vaccines available at near-cost. This cost would be entirely absorbed by the six nations of the pact. In the present condition of our globe, other key nations in Europe, the U.S., and so on might well be very keen to join in the process. But – the East Asian edge should act anyway and at once. To wait is to succumb to the regional encumbrances that are already evident amongst the prosperous nations of the West.

No existing international organisation such as the UN or the WHO has the sheer financial power to cut through the morass of nonsense and waste that presently distorts the very notion of vaccine dispersal. East Asia can certainly do so, but it must act at once, be transparently concerned with all poor nations, and go ahead whatever the initial response of leading global players in the West or elsewhere. Global players must continue to earn their place as leaders, and the COVID epidemic has certainly been a severe test of that.

Ian Inkster is professorial research associate at the Centre of Taiwan Studies, SOAS, University of London; a senior fellow at the Taiwan Studies Programme, China Policy Institute, University of Nottingham; and the editor of the International Journal of History and Technology.