(Image Credit: Wellcome Images via Wikimedia Commons; the image is at this link. Used without modification under Creative Commons Licence)
The reluctance of WHO to approve Canada’s vaccine for Covid-19 is yet another indication of our eroded clout on the world stage. Like the other instances, it is the result of the fact that Canada is the sickly sibling in G7.
On March 16, the Toronto Star reported that the World Health Organization was ‘likely’ to reject Canadian-developed Covid vaccine over tobacco ties. There are two issues involved here: Firstly, the manufacturer, Quebec-based Medicago, is 21% owned by the international tobacco giant Philip Morris International, and secondly, the vaccine is “manufactured using a cousin of the tobacco plant – one the company has stresses (sic) cannot be smoked”.
The report does not dwell on this ‘cousin plant’ aspect, so one wonders what the significance of the plant’s relationship to the tobacco plant is in the view of WHO. But there is a fair amount of narration in the report of the policy of WHO and the UN “regarding the engagement with tobacco and arms industry”.
I find the inclusion of the arms industry to be of note here. Humanitarian operations undertaken by the UN – or under its aegis / with its blessings – often involve sourcing the products of the arms industry, to be used for peacekeeping missions. Therefore, looking with disfavor on a product which could hep many countries deal with a situation that is, according to the claims of WHO itself, a global calamity (pandemic) does not appear consistent with the actions of the UN elsewhere.
Skipping around that inconsistency, one is left pondering as to why a minority stake by a tobacco company in a vaccine manufacturer would be considered objectionable enough by WHO to shun the vaccine, even though they must know that this would impact on public health at a global scale. In a nutshell, this is about weighing the relative importance of principle versus pragmatism. Once we look at the situation through this lens, we arrive at a crucial point of inquiry: If the Canadian vaccine had been the first to arrive on the market (ahead of Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, J&J and others), would the WHO have stuck to its principle as regards its ‘engagement with the tobacco industry’, and refused its approval to the vaccine? Here, it is pertinent to note that the approval by WHO is relevant for countries that don’t have their own Regulatory Authority to approve medicines and health related products – which is a polite way of saying ‘Third World countries’. Withholding the Canadian vaccine from these countries on any other ground would have been called ‘racist’ – and perhaps rightly so.
Approaching the equation from the other side, one can be reasonably sure that those countries would be voicing their displeasure to WHO about not approving the Canadian vaccine. It would have been an entirely different discussion if the WHO approval was withheld on grounds of performance or safety. As the Star article mentions, the Canadian vaccine was found to be 71% effective against symptomatic Covid in trials. (Note: I do not intend this discussion about the merits, or lack thereof, of the Covid vaccines generally. That could be a separate discussion. I am treating the efficacy and safety of the vaccines AS CLAIMED by the companies & governments as a starting point for another discussion altogether).
I wouldn’t begrudge those countries for telling WHO that their principle about dealing with tobacco companies can take a backseat in this case. It would be reasonable to assume that they may have done so. In that scenario, the collective voice of the potential beneficiary countries would be greatly augmented by that of Canada (or so we fondly hope as patriotic Canadians). But so far, it doesn’t appear to have been effective enough. The question is why.
I believe that the short answer to that question can be in the form of another question: What do we bring to the table at the international level? Or, to use an Americanism, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ Importance at the global level (or in any setting for that matter, right down to the individual) is earned by the contributions that one party is able & willing to make to the collective kitty. In this respect, unfortunately, our contributions have been on a declining trend in the recent past. Singing hosannas of praise about our contributions decades ago isn’t going to cut it – what matters is what we have contributed lately.
Allow me to clarify that I use the word ‘contribute’ not in an altruistic sense but a real-world one. For all it matters, our ‘contribution’ can be in the form of a commercial deal; as long as another party is able & willing to buy it from us, it would count as our ‘contribution’. People – and societies – have needs to fulfill, and anyone who is able to fill that need gets respected. Or our ‘contribution’ can be by way of participating in – and fully bearing the costs of – collective initiatives such as participation in peacekeeping missions or supplying aid when natural disaster strikes somewhere, etc. As I see it, the following are the areas where a country can contribute enough to earn respect in the global comity of nations (Note: there is usually an overlap between two or more areas):
- Defence (this would comprise equipment, personnel and intelligence),
- Science & technology,
- Commerce, and
NOT VERY STRONG, AND NOT QUITE FREE
As for the first one (defence), our woeful lack of capabilities is well-known, so I need not dwell on it. But I still cannot resist the temptation of observing that our procurement processes are so drawn out that for all it matters, they may not exist at all. A shining example of this is our fumbling attempts to procure 9 mm pistols for our military (the ones in ‘use’ now were manufactured in 1944 and, understandably, are falling apart). It is going to take us a full decade (if we’re lucky) to procure a piece of weaponry that is available in the civilian retail market. If there is one word to describe Canada’s military capability, it has to be ‘nonexistent’.
Foreign Minister Melanie Jolie admitted as much when she said that “Canada is not a nuclear power, it is not a military power, we’re a middle-size power … good at convening”. (Watch the video excerpt at this link of the National Post story on this). I struggle to understand as to how a country that is self-admittedly not a military power can be a middle-size power; being ‘good at convening’ doesn’t result in anyone seeing us as being powerful in any respect that matters on the international stage.
Separately, Defence Minister Anita Anand said, in response to the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s call to the allied nations to spend a “minimum” of two percent of GDP on defence (Canada spends about 1.39%), that she is “personally bringing forward aggressive options which could see [Canada], potentially, exceeding the two percent level, hitting the two percent level, and below the two percent level” (See this CBC story for the quote). Taking our GDP at a ballpark figure of C$ 2.2 trillion, increasing the defence spending from the current 1.39% to 2% would require additional spending of 13.42 billion. Whether they can manage to do that or not, however, the crucial question is what they would spend it on.
If we combine the two statements by the two ministers, it could possibly be that we would spend a chunk of that extra defence budget on convening conferences where participants discuss how to improve global security (while facilitating the transition to an economy that responds to the climate crisis and ensures gender balance to help the middle class and those working hard to join it). Jokes aside, our military readiness as a nation was aptly summarized by veteran journalist Terry Glavin as “a quagmire of … uplifting, heartwarming uselessness.” It is actually a given, in that circumstance, that the international community would not see us as worthy of respect.
On the energy front, while it is true that we are a significant supplier of fossil fuels to the world, the current social / political environment in Canada that views their use as sinful and to be repressed at any and all costs is a relevant factor. Our ideological revulsion at those forms of energy – at least at the levels of the officialdom and well-heeled activism – would naturally cause hesitation to increase investment in the sector in Canada, or to increase reliance on Canadian energy. We are, at best, a fair-weather friend. This is a sorry state for a country with the third highest proven reserves of oil to be in.
We have convinced ourselves, at least policy-wise, that transitioning away from fossil fuels is possible within a breathtakingly short time-frame. This delusion will, I believe, ultimately prove to be counter-productive; utilising our fossil fuel wealth would provide the necessary resources to facilitate that transition. If our fossil fuels sector is attractive to anyone at all, it is to the hostile foreign elements that want to see it suppressed – or at least deprioritized – via funding local proxies to agitate against any new projects. But that is not a constituency that will give us respect as a country; indeed, their actions are borne out of disrespect for Canada.
NOT MAKING IT UP
It is possible to discuss the remaining aspects of science & technology, manufacturing, commerce & culture together, because they stem from the very basic human tendencies of creativity, innovation and enterprise. The net result of a country’s strength in these areas is that it has more to offer what other countries want. This strength augments its ‘soft power’; the lives of the people of other countries are more deeply entwined with the products of our efforts and initiative.
But due to a variety of reasons (none of which are flattering to a self-respecting Canadian) our output on all those fronts ranges from inadequate to non-existent. From the stuff we buy to gadgets and gizmos we own to the software and apps that people use in their everyday lives (especially the social media apps) to the content that we consume online, there is hardly anything that is of Canadian invention or manufacture – let alone both. This becomes even more relevant outside Canada – we aren’t present in the lives of foreigners at all, the way Chinese goods or Hollywood and Bollywood are outside their national borders.
In a nutshell, we have a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ here. Because we aren’t present in the lives of non-Canadians, the governments of those countries have no reason to give us any importance (beyond our ability to supply raw resources and agricultural produce). At the same time, our relaxed attitude to matters of national & global security (I am putting it mildly here) makes many of them wary of including us in those discussions. We saw a dramatic example of this recently when the US, UK and Australia formed a separate grouping to cooperate on shared security concerns, excluding Canada. I believe that this development hasn’t received the urgent attention from our commentariat that it deserves – but that fact once again loops back to our relaxed attitude in security matters. It would appear that this weakness is not restricted to political circles.
Over the millennia of its existence, Hinduism has undergone several reformations. One of these was brought about by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century CE. One of his creations that is still popular today is the poem ‘Moha Mudgara’ (usually translated as ‘destroyer of illusion’, but the word ‘mudgara’ means ‘hammer’, so I prefer to translate it as ‘taking a hammer to (worldly) illusion’). In one of the verses of the poem, Adi Shankaracharya says:
“yaavad vitto-paarjana sakta-h, tavan nij parivaaro rakta-h
Pashchaad jeevati jarjar dehe, vaartaam ko-api na pruchchhati gere”
[As long as a person is able to generate income, people of his family treat that person like their own blood. Afterwards, the person lives with a dilapidated body (and so is unable to earn), and no one even asks about that person’s health.]
This may sound harsh but is rooted in the hard reality of life. Especially as it pertains to the relative importance of various countries on the geopolitical stage, where there is zero room for emotion and cold calculations rule, this is golden advice: What concrete contributions can we make on the global stage such that other countries actually give us the kind of importance that we fondly believe that they do? Being ‘good at convening’ isn’t going to cut it.
Perhaps at the very root of our multiple challenges lies the fact that we prioritize issues that do nothing to add to our global competitiveness. This is further compounded by the fact (which I have explored in detail in my earlier article ‘Structural Dysfunction’) that the discussions that we do have in Canada are forever mired in a self-sustaining loop of the same arguments being made over and over again, without benefiting from the actual experience over time.
I believe that we are at critical juncture globally now, and the hierarchy of nations is likely going to be reshuffled. Countries like the US and Germany are relatively safe owing to their large economies and spirit of innovation, but Canada does not have that advantage, especially the latter. I also believe that we still have some time – but not a lot of it – to correct our course so that we come out unscathed at the other end of this reshuffle. Individually, we are full of talent and potential, but collectively as a society, we aren’t clicking. This reminds me of the Indian cricket team of the 1970’s that one critic described as ‘a collection of very talented and capable players who, collectively, are not a team’. If we use the next few years becoming a team, we can secure a better future for our children and their children.
On the other hand, if we continue to waste our time on issues that don’t add to our global competitiveness, the very next verse of ‘Moha Mudgara’ tells us what fate awaits us:
“yaavad pavano nivasati dehe, taavat kushalam pruchchhati gehe
Gatavati vaayau dehapyaayai, bhaarya beebhyati tasmin kayai”
[As long as the breath of life resides in the body, everyone asks if you are well. Once the breath of life leaves the body, even the person’s wife is afraid of the corpse.]
Societies, of course, don’t become corpses the way individuals do. But if we aren’t careful and don’t use our limited remaining time wisely, our society will not enjoy the respect of more and more countries that are lower and lower down the hierarchy of nations. Siblings who aren’t able to contribute meaningfully may continue to be invited to family events for a while (and ignored while the event is in progress), but over time, the other family members will start ‘forgetting’ to invite them altogether. That’s the fate that may be in store for us in the G7 and other international groupings.