I was talking to a friend from Mexico the other day about the scramble everybody seems to be doing to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Here in the U.S., there are more vaccine sites opening up, and increased doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are now being shipped throughout the country. The pandemic has struck poorer communities, many of which are populated by minorities, particularly hard. The same can be said for developing and poorer countries that struggle to have access to the vaccine when the wealthier countries have already pre-purchased most of the supplies.
In the U.S., President Joe Biden has been receiving pressure from poorer countries to share the vaccine inventory that the U.S. has. He has been taking the approach that Americans need to be vaccinated first before U.S. vaccine is sent to other countries. According to Biden, “If we have a surplus, we’re going to share it with the rest of the world. We’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first, but we’re then going to try and help the rest of the world.” He has committed, along with India, Japan, and Australia, to work with Indian pharmaceutical manufacturer Biological E to produce a minimum of 1 billion doses by the end of next year.
Making sure that Americans get vaccinated first is logical, from a local standpoint, in tamping down the virus and attempting to bring some sense of normalcy to our everyday lives and economy. It is also a politically wise move given the fractures in this country and the attempt to generate trust for the efficiency of the federal government. In this sense, the U.S. is not acting like China and Russia in terms of shipping virus supplies to poorer countries as a way to effect foreign diplomacy and to build leverage in strategic parts of the world.
In the case of its neighbor to the south, the U.S. needs to be in deep negotiations with the Mexican government to come up with a plan to eventually get vaccines to that country. This is not just being a friendly neighbor, it is sound economic policy. In 2020, U.S.-Mexico trade totaled $538 billion, or almost $1.5 billion per day. Both of our economies depend on this trade to sustain millions of jobs. Assisting Mexico makes sense in helping the U.S. economy recover from the pandemic.
Mexico, on the other hand, with its current campaign in which a small portion of its population has been vaccinated, will also need to consider the best logistical approach to administer future vaccine supplies. My friend, and other Mexicans who live in urban areas, are in disagreement with the Mexican federal government’s approach. It first focused, as most countries have, on vaccinating front-line workers such as nurses. However, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), as part of his platform has actively sought to right the wrongs perpetuated against Mexico’s indigenous people. This has manifested itself in Mexico’s vaccine distribution, as it is focusing on vaccinating people in rural areas first.
Not surprisingly, many Mexican indigenous people have a historical distrust of the federal government. This makes many refuse the vaccine, which can have a short shelf life once unfrozen. My friend argues that the worst outbreaks of the pandemic are in Mexico’s large and crowded cities in which poorer families live with many relatives. Therefore, the vaccine campaign should have been initiated in urban, not rural areas. She argues that although cases have been isolated, large outbreaks have not decimated Native populations such as they have in the U.S., because regions such as Chihuahua’s Tarahumara lands are extremely isolated. It does beg the question if Mexico’s indigenous communities are super spreaders of the virus. In the chaos of the pandemic, there is a lot of uncertainty in Mexico as to who has caught the virus and who has died from it.
In the immediate future, AMLO faces the difficult choice of protecting the most vulnerable sectors of Mexico’s population, while choosing the most effective ways of stopping the spread of the virus. This is a difficult choice in the U.S., even with the increasing abundance of the vaccine. and it is even more difficult in Mexico with extremely limited supplies.
Ironically, my friend told me that if Americans are refusing the vaccine outright or not wanting the Johnson & Johnson brand because they believe its efficacy to be worse than the other two brands currently on the market (scientists don’t believe that it is), could the U.S. please send those unused and unwanted vaccines to Mexico?
After finishing this conversation, I felt a strong pang of guilt. As I write this column, more than 100 million, nearly a third, of Americans have received the vaccine. This figure would equate to about 80 percent of Mexico’s population. In the very near future, every American who wants the vaccine will be able to have it. There is hope returning in the U.S. that we can slowly get back to what approximates a normal life. Mexico is still waiting for this hope to come.