The New Mobility Apartheid? The Case for Vaccine Cosmopolitanism

Vaccine passports without vaccine harmonization would tear the entire world apart and suspend the human right―the right of free movement―of the world’s poorest people. Mobility apartheid is an assault on cosmopolitanism that might be the perennial condition of the poorest nations in Africa.

‘Ours is a world in which no individual, and no country, exists in isolation. All of us live simultaneously in our own communities and in the world at large.’

― Kofi A. Annan

Depending on how you look at it, the coronavirus pandemic has normalized uncertainty as a way of being in the world. Stability now appears more as an aspiration than as an immutable feature of human life. In the midst of this global catastrophe―what the late UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, would call a ‘problem without passport’―the prospect of vaccine passports seems to offer respite from the ravages of COVID-19. This is precisely why the European Union (EU) has proposed vaccination certificates as a strategy to facilitate travel and vacations within the bloc as well as boost the moribund tourism industry. China, Bahrain, Australia, New Zealand, and several other countries have followed suit.

Whilst the idea of inoculation certificate is very attractive and may ensure freedom of mobility, it masks the intrinsic inequalities and equalities that exist today as a result of neoliberal governmentality―the dominant mode of thought and praxis that couches international mobility as a function of capital in the most industrialized regions. There is the tendency that vaccine passports, if not backed with vaccine harmonization, will produce a novel ‘mobility apartheid’ with movements circulating more within states and regions rather on a global level. States and regions―through border ossifications―transmogrify into segregated spaces for the vaccinated privileged people in the West.

I understand ‘mobility apartheid’ as the emergent restrictions that feed on existing precarities to split the universe into privileged mobility classes based on access to vaccines. Passport power―hinged on the ability to enter other countries without requiring visas―is not just tinged with class proclivities but also strategically racialized so that borders tend to structure a supposed hierarchy of humanity. It is no coincidence, then, that access to vaccines has been structured along the usual capitalist lines with the richest nations wrestling between and amongst themselves to inoculate their populations before the rest of the world.

Vaccine passports devoid of vaccine harmonization will potentially reinforce global inequality especially with regard to mobility. Poorer members of society, who are already the most immobile on our planet, are likely to have an additional layer of restriction on their right to free movement. The end of the pandemic, however, cannot come about with inoculation passports but with the global distribution of vaccines which requires collaboration and empathy between the richest and poorest nations.


The current crisis we face globally owes not so much to the sheer dearth of vaccines but the self-interested behaviour of the richest nations in the drive to secure their populations and the profit-making proclivities of pharmaceutical companies. In a condition of lack, rich nations have not stopped short of hoarding the most promising, expensive, vaccines. Most poor nations have access to only the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine whilst Moderna, Pfizer/BioNTech, in addition to Oxford/AstraZeneca are readily available to the richest nations. Even current and future production is pegged to agreements between pharmaceutical companies and rich nations with the latter budgeting far more doses than they need to get their populations fully vaccinated. Several countries in Africa are either yet to receive the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine or, as predictions show, have to wait until 2023 to inoculate their populations after suffering severe humanitarian and economic devastation.

The pharmaceutical industry is perhaps the biggest winner of the chaotic era COVID-19 has ushered. US-based Moderna forecasts that it will rake in $18.4 billion in 2021 for sales of covid vaccines, which far exceed the $15 billion profit of Germany’s BioNTech. As the coronavirus develops new variants in Global South where inoculations are either very low or non-existent, the profit-seeking behaviour of some Western pharmaceutical corporations in their quest to rake in excessive monies has been detrimental to the equitable distribution of vaccines.

In the context of the coronavirus pandemic, intellectual property right is the capitalist’s metonym for innovation and accumulation, which ultimately reinforces global vaccine inequality. The debate on whether intellectual property rights should be waived has polarized developing and developed nations. India and South Africa have proposed―in collaboration with several poorer nations―to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to trigger an emergency licence laid out in the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs) to temporarily waive patents and copyrights until the end of the pandemic. The thinking behind this move was to ramp up vaccine production and distribution globally. However, India and South Africa’s proposal was rejected by the UK, the EU and mainly developed countries where major pharmaceutical companies are based. (The US which initially rejected waivers has now supported the proposal.) The dominant counterargument is that waiving intellectual property rights would drive down the profits of pharmaceutical corporations and this would, in turn, paralyze incentives for future development. Other developed nations do not find any causal link between intellectual property rights and equitable vaccine production and distribution.

Of course, there is no denying that patents are important for innovation. However, as we confront the current global health emergency, intellectual property rights on vaccines that preclude production outside Western laboratories are patently preposterous. Rather than treat vaccines as private property, as commodities, we need to harmonize profit-making with concern for the global public good. In fact, there is evidence based on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1990s that waiving patents contribute to resolving global public health emergencies. Antiretroviral drugs were available in the 1990s but were not widely distributed due to patents which made them quite expensive within sub–Saharan Africa. It was the 2001 Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health that struck a balance between public health and patents, giving companies the right to compensation whilst permitting others to make the protected product. The ‘Doha Declaration’ also gave governments the authority to grant compulsory licensing in extreme emergencies as well as the grounds upon which the licences are granted. If anything, the Doha Declaration in both its initial and updated forms ensures that HIV/AIDS victims in the poorest regions of the world have access to antiretroviral drugs at affordable prices.


Perhaps the greatest conundrum of the COVID-19 era stems from nationalism and regionalism. Leaders from almost every corner of the world have found in COVID-19 the opportunity to shut their nations and regions to the rest of the world devoid of opposition. Electoral victories are predetermined by how well the ruling political elites handle crisis―and this typically involves interrogations as to whether national or regional borders were instantaneously barricaded at the onset of the pandemic, as seen in the case of the UK.

National comparisons, even when inadequate and redundant, are employed to justify whether or not a nation should be under lockdown. Mobility―or, to be precise, mobility from outsiders―is, thus, couched as the menace that needs to be curbed in order to promote freedom for those within one’s nation or region. As restrictions on human mobility are sustained, there is, ironically, no halt on the movement of capital, goods, and services. Globalization under the pandemic has patently failed; it is nothing more than internet connectivity as human mobility has become even more restrained.

Hell-bent on demonstrating how powerful they are, nations and regions have had to compete over vaccines, a bizarre behaviour that has been pejoratively termed ‘vaccine nationalism’. Competition could bring out the good in us; but it could also go awry, unleashing the beast in us. This is evident from the series of confrontations between the EU and the UK with the former threatening on several occasions to freeze vaccine exports to nations outside the European orbit including the UK and Australia. Reciprocity and proportionality are exclusionary emblems to hoard vaccines: regionalism is nationalism by other means. This fractures public trust in multilateralism―particularly in the very EU institutions that champion cooperation amongst nations.

The national and regional origins of vaccines are an additional layer of contestation amongst states in what has been the most aggressive exposé of vaccine diplomacy. As I write, the EU’s recommendation of vaccine passports applies to those who will be inoculated with Western-manufactured vaccines such as BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna, CureVac, Oxford/AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Valneva, and Novavax, notwithstanding the fact that Hungary uses Sinopharm and Sputnik-V manufactured in Chinese and Russian laboratories. Though individual states are at liberty to use the vaccine, Sputnik has, so far, not been given EU-wide recognition. Due to sentiments stemming from perennial suspicions that because it is Russian, it is hardly effective. But politics is not science and we would be foolhardy to conflate both. Scientific trials have corroborated that Sputnik-V has an effectiveness rate of 92 per cent.

It is good for the world that there are non-Western vaccines available for distribution to developed and developing states rather than depending on the limited supplies from Western laboratories. For its part, China has threaded the EU’s path―the condition for foreign travellers to visit China is to have had China-made vaccines. The persistent attempt to employ vaccines to project national or regional influence in other states reflects, perhaps, the perilousness of nationalism and regionalism in aiding the prolongation of the pandemic.

An old proverb says that ‘when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’. As geopolitical silos emerge, as nationalism and regionalism go imperial, and as vaccine diplomacy tramples over genuine care for the stranger, it is the poorest nations that suffer. Africa harbours some of the most impoverished, debt-crippled, economies in the world. With Covid-19 testing below par and several deaths underreported, Africa has been markedly described as a ‘continent where the dead are not counted.’

Evidence suggests that 23 per cent of Lagosians in Nigeria contracted COVID-19 in 2020 even though this was not reflected in official national statistics. And as the pandemic ravages the African continent accelerating unemployment (Nigeria’s unemployment rate rose to 33.3 per cent in 2020, the second-highest globally) and poverty, old and new insecurities are constant: Tigray crisis in Ethiopia; food insecurity in Madagascar, South Sudan, Somalia, and Lesotho; banditry and abductions in Nigeria; armed conflicts and terrorism in Mozambique, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lake Chad Basin, and the Maghreb. But with Africa likely to be, on most predictions, the last continent to fully vaccinate its citizens, it is possible that the coronavirus will transition from being a pandemic to being endemic in the continent like HIV/AIDS.

Lacking technological infrastructure and the right to produce the vaccines, ‘mobility apartheid’ might be the perennial condition of the poorest nations in Africa. So, this is what ‘mobility apartheid’ might look like at least in theory in the coming years: most nations outside Africa produce and sanction their own vaccines as a requirement for visas and entry; or, alternatively, they promote their vaccines and exclude those who have not taken them from entry. To visit Europe or China, for instance, the traveller must receive EU-approved or China-approved vaccines. For Africans possessing passports, which can rarely visit any developed state outside Africa without visas, the additional requirement to take specific nationally or regionally approved vaccines to facilitate mobility―even when such vaccines are not widely distributed in much of the continent―will deprive them of their human right to movement. Global spaces―air, sea, land―which should serve to connect the world will be segregated along national and regional lines.

It would, in fact, not be surprising to find later that the coronavirus is described as the ‘African virus’ or the ‘virus endemic in developing countries.’ Such tag is the breeding ground of segregation and discrimination. Without vaccine harmonization, Africa could become the field upon which the COVID political war will be fought amongst the developed nations. More than those from other regions, Africans may also suffer abrogation of their right to mobility.


‘Mobility apartheid’ is not, in my view, the right response to the coronavirus pandemic. Closing borders to ‘strangers’ cannot eradicate the virus. But in a world bedevilled by nationalism, the virtues of cosmopolitanism are on the wane. The nationalist assumes that elsewhere does not matter; that what binds us together are our kith and kin, and that care for others beyond our national spaces is foolhardy since community is principally local and we, in effect, do not know strangers. As appealing as this argument might seem, it is profoundly implausible. The cultural theorist, Kwame Anthony Appiah, has shown through his life and work that the local and the global are not necessarily in tension: we could indeed be ‘cosmopolitan patriots’. Consider, by way of example, the basic human rights (freedom of religion, thought, speech, association, movement, information, and so on). Despite our cultural differences, these are undoubtedly universal. There is really nothing stopping each one of us from caring about human rights in our particular communities while at the same time being concerned about human rights around the world. The boundary of moral concern is not coterminous with national boundaries. It is in this sense, I am inclined to think, that patriotism does not entail turning a blind eye to strangers.

There are, thus, three cogent reasons why we must abandon vaccine nationalism for the cosmopolitan alternative: the first is moral; the second, economic; and the third, epidemiological. Morally, we ought to care about others beyond our local communities, to expand our moral space. That nobody is safe until everybody is safe is a truism whose presuppositions can hardly be contested. Every human life matters regardless of where they are situated in time and space. Vaccine passports without vaccine harmonization would tear the entire world apart and suspend the human right―the right of free movement―of the world’s poorest people. Mobility apartheid is an assault on cosmopolitanism. Those in the developed world should care about the welfare of citizens of developing nations because they are human beings―fellow ‘citizens of the world’ as Diogenes of Sinope would have it. COVAX―the joint collaboration between the WHO, Gavi, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), and several developed nations to ensure equitable access to vaccines for middle-income and low-income countries―is indeed a welcome development as it pushes the boundaries of our moral imagination beyond those nearest and closest to us.

The second reason for caring about the fate of developing nations is economic. It has been estimated that―as supply chains are disrupted due to the uncertainties of the coronavirus―global economic prosperity will decline if it already has not with so many states and regions going into recession. There are really no winners from the pandemic: the precarious condition is not a zero-sum or win-lose game. If there is no global distribution of vaccines that ensures that everyone is safe, high-income, middle-income, and low-income nations will suffer the consequences. Over $1.2 trillion could be lost annually to the pandemic and rich nations would easily lose around $119 billion each year until there is global recovery from the pandemic. We are all in the same boat, so to speak. The global economy is interconnected so that whatever happens in the West or in Africa has the potency to haunt the universe. It is, therefore, economically imperative that we concern ourselves with the complete and worldwide eradication of the virus.

The epidemiological reason is scientifically incontrovertible: viruses mutate all the time, and each extra infection can produce stronger variants with the capacity to evade vaccines already in use to combat the coronavirus. There is also uncertainty regarding how long the vaccines will protect us. What we do know for now is that the vaccines will last for a minimum of three months but, beyond that, the duration is quite uncertain. Our immunity is dependent upon whether we can contain the virus by preventing the emergence of future variants: it is in the best interest of all of us if we are all vaccinated quickly. This is precisely why Andrey Zarur is clearly right that ‘By failing to swiftly vaccinate the world’s billions of young people, and allowing them to become infected, we could inadvertently nurture a new pandemic.’

Racial segregation was one of our moral failures historically. Will mobility segregation be our next political catastrophe? That depends, I think, on whether we accept or reject vaccine cosmopolitanism, the principle that entails concern for others―the poorest and most impoverished citizens―outside our national borders. The pandemic will end not so much with the distribution of vaccine passports but with the harmonization and global distribution of vaccines which only collaboration and empathy between developing and developed nations can bring out

The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].