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In a time of danger, US should help its family and friends first

A technician prepares a Pfizer vaccine in the pharmacy area of the newly opened COVID-19 Vaccination Centre in Sydney, Australia, Monday, May 10, 2021...

A technician prepares a Pfizer vaccine in the pharmacy area of the newly opened COVID-19 Vaccination Centre in Sydney, Australia, Monday, May 10, 2021...

U.S. to share more vaccines

President Joe Biden announced on May 17 that the United States would increase its commitment to provide other countries with COVID-19 vaccines with an additional 20 million doses.

This means a total of 80 million U.S.-supplied doses will be sent abroad, reportedly by the end of June. However, there is no schedule yet.

President Biden explained this decision as one of self-interest: “America will never be fully safe while this pandemic is raging globally. That’s why today, I’m announcing that over the next six weeks we will send 80 million vaccine doses overseas."

"It is the right thing to do," he continued. "It is the smart thing to do. It is the strong thing to do.”

Where the vaccines go and when remain key questions

President Biden nonetheless did not say what countries and what groups within those countries would receive the U.S. vaccines, nor in what order of priority. This raises problematic questions about whether U.S self-interest is really being served.

The distribution of vaccines cannot be solely about the health of other countries. The distribution of U.S. vaccines is also about the health of U.S. citizens living abroad and also about U.S. strategic interests.

Given the paucity of vaccines currently available in Taiwan, several tax-paying U.S. citizens, for example, have asked me, as a former AIT Director, if AIT would provide vaccines for U.S. citizens living in Taiwan. The answer I conveyed to them was a definite “No.”

This is unfortunate because there is still a dearth of vaccines in Taiwan even for Taiwanese, and travel back to the States poses the risk of acquiring the virus on the journey. Many people, moreover, cannot afford the time off from work and the expense of the journey itself, especially with the two-dose vaccines that require a substantial interval.

Similar problems confront all expatriates living in Taiwan, but this should also be a matter of concern for all U.S. citizens living abroad in other countries as well. The State Department estimated in 2020 that there were 9 million Americans living overseas.

Since the State Department's mission is in part “to protect U.S. citizens and their interests abroad,” why would this not include vaccination against a deadly pandemic?

What number of people in Taiwan need vaccinations?

Former colleagues at AIT tell me their working assumption has always been that there were some 80,000 U.S. citizens living in Taiwan, but they now believe the COVID-19 pandemic brought back to Taiwan another 100,000 U.S. citizens.

These numbers of course pale in comparison with the far greater problem of 23,572,052 Taiwanese, the figure given in the 2021 CIA World FactBook estimate, most of whom have not been vaccinated even as the incidence of COVID-19 has escalated. America must think about its compatriots overseas as well as our friends abroad.

Since there are an estimated 7.8 billion people in the world, even 80 million doses will not make a wrinkle in the global pandemic, especially since some of the vaccines require two doses. Additional commitments — such as the European Commission May 21 announcement that the European Union will donate at least 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to developing countries this year — will also not necessarily make that much of a difference absent further contributions.

Ethical advice offers no practical help

There have been several recent studies and there is an ongoing ethical debate over who should receive the U.S. vaccines sent overseas. One lengthy study at the University of Washington concluded that “vaccines should be distributed globally with priority to frontline and essential workers worldwide… [and] assigning vaccine priority both to people at higher risk of serious disease or death and to those at higher risk of infection. Our priorities for just distribution highlight values of helping the neediest, reducing health disparities, saving lives and keeping society functioning.”

However admirable such goals may be, and assuming all the governments in the world with vaccines even agreed with them, it would nonetheless take an omniscient power to make judicious decisions on distributing vaccines among hundreds of millions of people while identifying the neediest.

WHO is not trustworthy, especially for Taiwan

It is also ludicrous to think that the World Health Organization or its affiliated organizations would be up to the task, given how it botched its original alerts about COVID-19 as well as its subsequent misleading investigation.

Nonetheless, Gayle Smith, whom the Biden Administration appointed as the coordinator of the global COVID response, strongly supports distributing U.S. vaccines primarily through multilateral organizations like the World Health Organization’s COVAX program. This is not good news for Taiwan or a good sign of the direction the United States may take.

The World Health Assembly is scheduled to meet from May 24 through June 1, when the question of Taiwan’s participation as an observer in the WHA will be on the agenda. It is difficult to believe that the many countries in thrall to China will do anything but support China’s opposition, despite Taiwan’s superb initial performance in the fight against COVID-19 without vaccines, as well as the assistance it gave to many countries, including the United States, by providing masks, personal protective equipment, oxygen, and other supplies.

In my view, this likely WHA outcome reinforces my view that President Biden should have required Taiwan’s membership in the WHO as a precondition for the U.S. rejoining the organization. The U.S., as the largest single financial contributor to the WHO by far, should have more of a say in the way the WHO operates, or it should not participate.

United States is all talk, but so far, no action

On May 20, U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra expressed generic support for Taiwan during a virtual meeting with Taiwan's Health Minister Chen Shih-chung (陳時中).

"The U.S. supports Taiwan's ability to access vaccines," Becerra later said in a Twitter message. However, the tweet did not say the U.S. would actually deliver vaccines to Taiwan or assist Taiwan in acquiring them.

The U.S. health secretary said he would take the matter to President Joe Biden and promised that the U.S. would take into consideration Taiwan's needs when distributing its vaccines, according to Minister Chen.

Was that the best we could do for Taiwan?

On May 21, White House Press Secretary Jen Peski announced that President Biden had signed an executive order establishing a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force “to provide specific recommendations to the president for allocating resources and funding in communities with inequities in COVID-19 outcomes by race, ethnicity, geography, disability, and other considerations.”

Isn’t it past time, however, for specific commitments?

“Being America’s ally ought to matter in a crisis”

In President Biden’s April 16 meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Suga and more recent May 21 meeting with Korean President Moon Jae-In, both U.S. allies raised the need for vaccines. Both countries are well behind where they should be in vaccinating their countrymen.

As reported by Josh Rogin in his excellent essay “Being America’s ally ought to matter in a crisis,” a Biden administration official told him, “Virtually every country in the world is very eager to get more vaccines…. We understand that this is a priority for them.”

Why, then, is it so hard to understand the imperative to help Taiwan, which is arguably even more strategically critical to the U.S. in East Asia and its efforts to thwart PRC aggression? China and Russia have certainly not held back in their use of vaccines as a tool to foster their strategic interests.

It’s about time we started treating Taiwan like the ally it is.

William A. Stanton is vice president of National Yang-Ming University. He previously served from August 2017 to July 2019 as a professor at the Center for General Education at National Taiwan University. Dr. Stanton previously worked for four years as the George K.C. Yeh Distinguished Chair Professor and founding director of the Center for Asia Policy at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU). From October 2014 through January 2016, he was also NTHU’s senior vice president for Global Affairs. Dr. Stanton previously served for 34 years as a U.S. diplomat. His final posting was as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2009-2012).

Updated : 2021-06-17 14:39 GMT+08:00