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The COVID-19 vaccine debate and the trap of arguing on behalf of global rivals

Linking Africa and African history to its contemporary placement in international relations is now rarely done, not least in Zimbabwe’s case with its peculiar pariah status globally.  

This is so particularly where it concerns Zimbabwe’s relationship statuses with its former colonial power, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK), or the United States of America (USA) and the European Union (EU), who in all likelihood followed the lead of the UK in how they approach their relations with Zimbabwe. 

On the other hand, there are at least two other global superpowers that have generally differed with the more hegemonic ones in how they relate with Zimbabwe.  These are the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and the Russia Republic. They have both taken a different view on Zimbabwe. The most demonstrable difference with their superpower counterparts was when they jointly vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council (UNSC) draft resolution to sanction Zimbabwe’s political leaders and their allies in 2008. 

Interests, not friends

In either global hegemonic camps’ intentions, it can all be considered as being fair in love and (diplomatic) war. As we were taught at university, in international relations there are no permanent friends, but permanent interests. 

So in the case of the differing global hegemons’ approach to Zimbabwe, the key question is not what their intentions are, because these are generally the same in the final analysis. That is, where they can, they will extract or negotiate extraction in their own interests. It is more important to ask what our own interests are in our relations with them. Or to put it more simply, the responsibility of agency in these relations remains primarily with us and not them. 

Even where we would argue that Zimbabwe has been the proverbial grass that suffers when elephants fight, it would still be remiss to assume we are mere pawns in the game. We also make decisions about who to interact with and why.

In this, I will give a specific example of how, in 1966 at the Havana Tri-Continental Conference, the inimitable African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral explained the following (and I quote him at length for clarity) :

“It is useful to recall in this Tricontinental gathering, so rich in experience and example, that however great the similarity between our various cases and however identical our enemies, national liberation and social revolution are not exportable commodities; they are, and increasingly so every day, the outcome of local and national elaboration, more or less influenced by external factors (be they favorable or unfavorable) but essentially determined and formed by the historical reality of each people, and carried to success by the overcoming or correct solution of the internal contradictions between the various categories characterising this reality…”

We know and even knew upon attainment of our national independence that no matter the amount of help we received mainly from China and Russia as well as Scandinavian Europe, none of these countries that came to our aid defined the revolution for us. They helped, but they did not own it.

Where we come to our contemporary Zimbabwean placement in the world, we may have now forgotten historical aspects of how we got here, both in the recent as well as distant past. And it’s all understandable given global developments such as the crumbling of the Soviet Union, now Russia, or the rise of China as a global superpower, and the continued dramatic rise of the neoliberal and nationalistic right in the global west. 

In this, the COVID-19 pandemic as it continues to change our lives also reshapes global relations and priorities.  With the most apparent element to this being the issue of what the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has referred to as ‘vaccine nationalism’ and the politicisation of its distribution. 

Chinese delivery

Zimbabwe recently received a donated consignment of the Sinopharm vaccine from China, even as it awaits another paid-for consignment from the same.

Social media went slightly apoplectic at the fact that the government had decided to source the vaccine from China. Some opposition politicians remained highly suspicious of the fact that the vaccine came from China and therefore cannot be considered viable without clear scientific justification, and probably just demonstrating an abstract preference for sourcing the vaccine from the west or at least western pharmaceutical companies.

At the same time, government has insisted that it made the correct decision and has emphasised its longstanding relationship with China as a key reason for trust in the latter’s science.

In either case, what is important is the application of our minds to our own context, within the framework of a pandemic. We know we need all the help we can get. But as is wont with everything that we do, we tend to politicise things that are essentially about the lives and livelihoods of our people.   

In this, we may sometimes find ourselves thinking on behalf of those with whom we seek to curry favour, or choosing to argue on behalf of one or the other global hegemonic side as of old.

In most instances, this will relate to the given global narratives around what/who China or Russia are perceived or known to be, especially as captured by global mainstream media narratives. 

It however remains imperative that we avoid falling into the trap of these narratives as easily as we would have before COVID-19 struck us. 

Instead, we must, in a Cabralist sense, begin to apply our minds more assiduously to our local context in order to find sustainable solutions as to how we deal with the pandemic. At the same time, we must remember that in international relations and where we seek help from others, it is our own agency that matters the most.

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