Biological warfare is often referred to in international development theory, but it has become a genuine possibility in the current global climate. There is a prevalent fear among human rights groups and grassroots activists that the COVID-19 vaccine could easily become a tool for political elites in their endeavour to claim power and advance their interests. In the end, political elites having complete control over the distribution and access to the vaccine may be detrimental to marginalized, vulnerable groups worldwide.
Israel’s inefficiency in vaccinating the people of Palestine while still being one of the fastest countries in the world to vaccinate its population is notable. Such deliberate withholding of medical treatment has a long history in war-torn countries. At the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2013, Polio was rediscovered in one of Syria’s least-developed provinces – Deir ez-Zo. There is a common belief that Bashar al-Assad’s government deliberately excluded the rebel-held north from earlier routine vaccination drives as a way of waging war.“Put together the attacks on doctors, the destruction of the health system, and the denial of vaccines to areas considered politically unsympathetic or areas outside government control, and here we have a human-made outbreak,” Annie Sparrow, US public health expert, reported at the time.
Today, Syria faces a different kind of challenge. International aid groups such as the UN have struggled to secure the equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines across Syria. In its 11th year of civil war, Syria faces multiple challenges, including the country’s war-ravaged electricity network, fuel shortages, and depleted medical infrastructure. This makes it difficult to distribute and maintain the vaccine at low temperatures. Additionally, the inequitable distribution of ventilators, protective gear, and tests have made many human rights activists unsure of the government’s ability to facilitate a fair vaccine rollout.
The World Health Organization announced that war-torn Syria is eligible to receive free vaccines through COVAX, a global initiative to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines. However, distribution has not yet begun. In fact, it was only in the second week of March that Syria began its vaccine drives, starting with frontline healthcare workers. Given the regime’s history of denying vaccines to rebel-held areas, many worry that they won’t have access to the vaccine without international intervention or aid. Officials fear that with the global economic downturn spurred by the pandemic, international assistance for Syria is about to take a new hit just when it is needed most.
The WHO announced that the first batch of vaccine doses was intended to arrive in war-ravaged Syria on 23 February. Thirty-five to 40 percent of the vaccines would be made available in the first quarter of 2021, and 60 to 65 percent in the second quarter. It will probably only cover about 3 percent of the Idlib governorate population and its surrounding area.
The New York Times reported that the vaccine was acquired from Israel via Russia. With Russia’s help, Syria negotiated the release of a young Israeli woman in exchange for the Sputnik V vaccination. The limited number of doses—5000 shots—places the power to choose where they are directed in the government’s hands. This allows for discriminatory distribution of the vaccine, punishing those who oppose the government or simply reside in rebel-held areas. Without the international community ensuring the equitable supply and tracking of COVAX to all regions, many groups will be left vulnerable to the virus.
Syria has not publicly admitted to the deal with Israel as it would greatly embarrass the Syrian government, led by Bashar al-Assad, who once considered Israel its greatest enemy in the region.
There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has created an environment of extreme vulnerability in areas of conflict. Political elites will almost certainly try to use the vaccine to facilitate their own goals. However, the strategy to withhold vaccines from anti-government citizens is fundamentally flawed. By not vaccinating your entire population against the virus, you are endangering your entire country physically, socially, and economically. It is impossible to protect your country unless everyone is immunized. If the virus continues to spread among those who are not, there is greater chance for the virus to mutate, creating the possibility of reinfection.
Edited by Elina Qureshi.
Mehak Balwani is in her third year at McGill University, currently pursuing a B.A. in International Development and English Literature.