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Why vaccines are the new nuclear arsenal for power and pride

By XN Iraki | January 17th 2021 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

A member of a German Red Cross mobile vaccination team prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. [Reuters]

Ownership of nuclear weapons gives some countries veto on key decisions at the United Nations Assembly. Though never used for 75 years, nuclear weapons bestow a country with pride, prestige and confidence.

 The nuclear powers include the USA, Russia which inherited the weapons from the former Soviet Union, France, Britain, Pakistan, China, India and North Korea.

It is thought that Israel and South Africa once had them or have them. For South Africa, it is rumoured that the apartheid regime made sure they did not get such weapons into wrong hands.” Fill the gaps.

The nuclear powers are determined to keep membership in their club at a minimum. That is why Iran is at crosshairs of the US and Israel to ensure she never gets nuclear weapons. Who has been killing Iranian nuclear scientists?

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For those who slept through physics lessons, and I suspect they are many; a nuclear weapon or bomb is made by converting matter into energy. It was one of Albert Einstein’s greatest discoveries; energy equals matter multiplied by the speed of light squared.

By splitting the nucleus of some atoms, you can unleash their energy. By fusing, or putting together some nuclei, you can get even more energy.

Only a few elements, usually uranium or plutonium can unleash the power in their nucleus, hence nuclear weapons. Lots of uranium come from Africa, including the one used to make the atomic bombs during the Second World War (WWII). We still mine uranium in Africa but lack the technology to make nuclear weapons and join the prestigious club.

The hardest part of making nuclear weapons is getting pure enough uranium or plutonium, so-called weapon-grade.

The nuclear fuel is not just for war, it has peaceful use; nuclear reactors to generate power. Wondering why I am so detailed? My undergraduate transcript has units like Quantum Physics, Statistical mechanics, Nuclear Physics among others...

Paradoxically, the prestige and power of a country is based on its ability to destroy others. At an individual level, some people are licensed to carry guns (death) while criminal gangs get their power from illegal guns. Never mind that at times, moral power can be more lasting and effective.

Remember Mandela or Gandhi? The power system and prestige based on nuclear weapons seems to have been upended by Covid -19.

The power and prestige of a country is now being defined by its ability to make and distribute Covid-19 vaccine to its population, to keep death at bay. Countries are in “vaccine race.”

Did you notice how quickly Russia came up with a Covid-19 vaccine and named it after the world first artificial satellite, Sputnik? Noted how the western media magnified the discovery of vaccine by German or US team and later the UK while muting the Chinese and Russian discoveries.

Iran is reported to have developed a vaccine, but be sure it will get scant mention in mainstream media, no matter how effective it is. India has a Covid-19 vaccine too.

The western powers seem determined to make up through Covid-19 vaccine what they lost in their inability to control the coronavirus - Chinese style. It has been mentioned repeatedly that Covid -19 is unlikely to be the last pandemic.

 The damage to national economies after Covid-19 means the ability to make a vaccine quickly and protect your population will become more prominent in global affairs.

 We could have a section of the military called the virus corps. National pride and confidence are now based its ability to come up with vaccines, not antiballistic missiles.

Remember because of the possibility of biological weapons, countries are wary of importing vaccines from their rivals. They would prefer their own. Can Americans accept a Chinese made vaccine? The next phase in vaccines is economics and the money thereof.

Who makes money along the vaccines supply chain?

If the cheapest Covid-19 vaccine goes for Sh350 ($3) a dose, vaccinating seven billion citizens of planet Earth would cost $21 billion, about Sh2.1 trillion. What are the profit margins?

That is likely to be the manufacturer’s secret. What makes the business of Covid-19 vaccine juicy beyond national pride and prestige is that you are assured of a customer, the government on behalf of its people? The customer is even willing to order in advance, more like pre-plan houses. It gets more fascinating.

A member of a German Red Cross mobile vaccination team prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. [Reuters]

Soft power

Will Covid-19 vaccine producing countries use it as a tool of diplomacy and soft power? A good example; Kenya will get her vaccine from UK based AstraZeneca.

Suppose China offers the vaccine free? In the past, foreign aid and gunboat before that were the key levers in diplomacy. The national power and prestige have been based on the ability to harness the power of the nucleus to make powerful weapons. That has shifted to the virus and how you can control it to keep diseases at bay. We have come full circle.

The power and prestige now depend again on what we can’t see, the virus and its DNA. We can’t see the nucleus of uranium or plutonium too.

Space has been the other theatre to show off national pride and prestige. It involves owning satellites, landing on the moon or sending probes there, exploring the outer fringes of the solar system and for Donald Trump, setting up a space command in the military. Space is visible to all, unlike virus. Are our politicians aware that real power comes from harnessing science and not holding rallies or having more policemen?

Even in academia, the power has shifted from physics and chemistry, the basis of nuclear weapons to biology. Any sign we shall get a Kenyan vaccine? I want to start showing off.

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi

Covid-19 Vaccine
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