Karina Gould, Minister of International Development, holds a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Karina Gould, Minister of International Development, holds a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

COVID-19 vaccines: Canadians torn between helping the world and helping themselves

Canada’s role in international organizations also declined over the past 25 to 30 years

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is highlighting the disconnect between the way Canadians see their role in the world and reality, according to international affairs experts.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau boasts that the country has secured more vaccine per capita than any other country. Canada’s pre-purchase agreements for nearly 400 million doses would give it enough to cover the entire population five times over.

But as Ottawa faces pressure to help poorer countries access COVID-19 vaccines, it is also being pulled internally by provinces demanding their citizens be vaccinated as quickly as possible.

The federal government says it will donate hundreds of millions of dollars to help developing countries vaccinate their citizens. But federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand has said Canada will do “whatever it takes” to get more vaccine delivered to the country sooner — including, she said, by upping the price it is willing to pay.

David Hornsby, professor of international affairs at Carleton University, said the pandemic has shed light on an inward-looking trend that has been developing in the country for decades.

Over the past 25 to 30 years, Hornsby said in a recent interview, Canada has gone from having a “very broad and inclusive definition of national interest” to one that is “very narrow and very much focused and located on what is immediately relevant to Canadians.” Canada’s role in international organizations also declined over that period, he added.

Canada is certainly not alone in wanting to help itself before it helps others. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, this week warned that the world is “on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure” as rich countries make deals to secure vaccine and drive up prices.

While more than 39 million doses of vaccine have been administered in 49 higher-income countries, said Tedros, who goes by his first name, only one country that the WHO considers lowest income has given out any vaccine — a total of 25 doses.

But on Tuesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada had made the right move by signing bilateral deals with drug makers — the exact sort of deals criticized by Tedros.

“We took extra care to sign more contracts with more potential vaccine makers than most of our allies and indeed have secured more doses per person than any other country,” Trudeau told reporters.

Jason Nickerson,humanitarian affairs adviser for Doctors Without Borders, says he’s worried wealthy countries such as Canada will vaccinate people who are at lower risk of developing serious cases of COVID-19 before people at high risk in poorer countries get their shots.

“I think there’s just a straight moral obligation to vaccinate people who are at a higher risk of developing the disease, developing severe complications and dying from it when we have a vaccine that could potentially prevent all of those things from happening,” Nickerson said in a recent interview.

Maxwell Smith, a medical ethicist at Western University and a member of Ontario’s Vaccine Distribution Task Force, said it makes sense that Canadian governments want to get vaccines as fast as they can, but Canadians, he said, also need to recognize that vaccines are a scarce global public good.

“Everyone really needs it and would benefit from it,” he said in a recent interview.

“That’s not to say that Canada doesn’t have a particular obligation to its citizens and shouldn’t be trying to do what we’re doing in getting as many vaccines as quickly as possible into this country. But I hope that it’s being balanced against our obligations, also, to those in other countries and our obligations based in our humanity.”

Federal International Development Minister Katerina Gould said she doesn’t think the idea of inoculating Canadians quickly while helping other countries access vaccines is mutually exclusive.

“We’re going to ensure that we vaccinate our own population, but at the same time, support global multilateral efforts to vaccinate those who otherwise would not have access to a COVID-19 vaccine,” she said in an interview Monday.

ALSO READ: No Pfizer vaccines arriving in Canada next week; feds still expect 4M doses by end of March

But Canada is facing criticism from groups that say it needs to act faster to support global efforts, especially because it has pre-purchase agreements for more doses of vaccine than any other country in the world.

Anne-Catherine Bajard, a policy manager with Oxfam Canada, said Canada has made a strong commitment to COVAX, an international organization that aims to help lower-income countries access vaccines. But she’d like to see Canada start contributing to the COVAX vaccine pool immediately, rather than waiting to vaccinate all Canadians first.

It’s not just the right thing to do from a humanitarian perspective, she said in an interview Friday. There’s also an element of self-interest. “We’re not going to stop the pandemic if we do it one country at a time,” she said.

While the federal government has “secured access” to nearly 400 million doses, Gould said most of those doses remain hypothetical. Only two of the seven vaccines that Ottawa has the right to buy have been approved by Health Canada.

“We don’t actually have a closet full of hidden vaccines,” she said. “These doses don’t yet exist.”

Gould, who co-chairs a COVAX governance body, said Canada is one of the top five donors to the ACT-Accelerator, the international organization that runs COVAX. In total, the federal government said it has committed $865 million in fundingto the organization in addition to any donations of surplus vaccine.

While the federal government did not provide a timeline for that commitment, according to data from Gavi, the ACT-Accelerator’s parent organization, Canada has committed to provide $600 million in direct funding between 2021 and 2025 and to provide $246 million to COVAX this year.

And while Canada might be more inward-looking today than in generations past, Hornsby noted the country remains deeply integrated into the global economy and that many Canadians have family overseas. That means Canada can’t isolate itself from the rest of the world and only focus on vaccinating people here, he said.

Finding a “happy medium” is difficult, he added. “There’s going to be clear winners and clear losers.”

———

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirusvaccines

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A woman wears a protective face covering to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as she walks past the emergency entrance of Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, April 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
54 more cases of COVID-19 in Interior Health

Thirty-two people in the region are in hospital with the virus, 11 of them in intensive care

BC Wildfire Service crew member Josh Hutchinson participated in a controlled burn above the Williams Lake Stampede Grounds on Tuesday, April 20 that was conducted in concert with the Williams Lake Fire Department. It was a good weather day for the burn, as on Wednesday, April 21, the BCWS is urging caution, with strong winds in the forecast Wednesday and Thursday for the region. (Monica Lamb-Yorski photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Cariboo Fire Centre urges caution against outdoor burning due to strong winds forecast

Public, industry asked to consider postponing burning until calmer weather

Cathy McLeod (File Photo)
McLeod disappointed with first federal budget in two years

The 2021 Federal Budget released Monday, April 19 is “disappointing and politically opportunistic,”

A two-hectare fire is burning between Canim Lake and Hawkins Lake. (Photo submitted).
Homeowners urged to be cautious with outdoor burning

Multiple fires, tinder-dry conditions good reminders to be vigilant.

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson outlines the province’s three-year budget in Victoria, April 20, 2021. (B.C. government video)
B.C. deficit to grow by $19 billion for COVID-19 recovery spending

Pandemic-year deficit $5 billion lower than forecast

A large crowd protested against COVID-19 measures at Sunset Beach in Vancouver on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (Snapchat)
VIDEO: Large, police-patrolled crowds gather at Vancouver beach for COVID protests

Vancouver police said they patrolled the area and monitored all gatherings

FILE – The Instagram app is shown on an iPhone in Toronto on Monday, March 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy
Judge acquits B.C. teen boy ‘set up’ on sex assault charge based on Instagram messages

The girl and her friends did not have ‘good intentions’ towards the accused, judge says

Kai Palkeinen recently helped a car stuck on the riverbed near the Big Eddy Bridge. While the car could not be saved, some of the driver’s belongings were. It’s common for vehicles to get stuck in the area due to significantly changing river levels from Revelstoke Dam. (Photo by Kai Palkeinen)
“I just sank a car’: Revelstoke resident tries to save vehicle from the Columbia River

Although it’s not permitted, the riverbed near the city is popular for off roading

Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, walks down the street with an acquaintance after leaving B.C. Supreme Court during a lunch break at her extradition hearing, in Vancouver, B.C., Thursday, April 1, 2021. A judge is scheduled to release her decision today on a request to delay the final leg of hearings in Meng Wanzhou’s extradition case. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Rich Lam
B.C. judge grants Meng Wanzhou’s request to delay extradition hearings

Lawyers for Canada’s attorney general had argued there is no justification to delay proceedings in the case

B.C. Premier John Horgan announces travel restrictions between the province’s regional health authorities at the legislature, April 19, 2021. (B.C. government photo)
B.C. sees 862 more COVID-19 cases Wednesday, seven deaths

Recreational travel restrictions set to begin Friday

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson is photographed following her budget speech in the legislative assembly at the provincial legislature in Victoria, Tuesday, April 20, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
B.C. budget lacks innovative drive, vision during uncertain times, say experts

Finance Minister Selina Robinson’s budget sets out to spend $8.7 billion over three years on infrastructure

Using panels kept cold by water circulating within them, B.C. researchers compared thermal comfort in 60 of the world’s most populous cities, including Toronto. (Lea Ruefenacht)
B.C. researchers use air conditioning to combat spread of COVID particles

Dr. Adam Rysanek and his team have proven a new worthwhile system – a mixture of cooling panels and natural ventilation

Police road checks are coming for people travelling between regions while COVID-19 travel restrictions are in place. (Black Press file photo)
B.C. clarifies COVID-19 travel restrictions, Lower Mainland a single zone

Vehicle checks on highways, at ferry terminals to start Friday

Most Read