Bans placed on China over treatment of Uygurs. Turkey withdraws from international treaty protecting women. By Jonathan Pearlman.

EU virus surge sparks fight over vaccine exports to Britain

A vaccine hub in Cremona, Italy, after the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine was reintroduced to inoculation campaigns by EU member countries.
A vaccine hub in Cremona, Italy, after the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine was reintroduced to inoculation campaigns by EU member countries.
Credit: EPA / Filippo Venezia

Great power rivalry

China: On Monday, the European Union imposed sanctions on China over its mass detention of Uygurs – the first such measure since Brussels placed an arms embargo on Beijing following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

Attempting to demonstrate a united front against Beijing, the United States, Britain and Canada also imposed sanctions. Australia and New Zealand did not but issued a joint statement in which they welcomed the sanctions and called for China to allow United Nations officials to assess the situation in Xinjiang.

The European sanctions targeted four officials associated with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps and the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau, which have both reportedly been involved in building detention camps and surveillance systems.

China quickly retaliated, imposing sanctions on four European entities and 10 citizens, including five members of the European parliament and a German researcher, Adrian Zenz, who has exposed Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang.   

Last December, the EU signed an investment pact with China despite criticism from the incoming Biden administration, which said the deal failed to act against forced labour in China. But the tit-for-tat sanctions this week have jeopardised the pact.

Bernd Lange, a member of the European parliament who is overseeing the vetting of the deal, said in a tweet that China’s “ill-advised escalation” was an attack on the parliament. “Trying to silence this institution can only backfire,” he said.

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: On Tuesday night, Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, James Marape, wrote a message on Facebook to “my dearest PNG people”, admitting that the Covid-19 outbreak had exposed the nation’s weak health system. He urged people to wear masks and tried to address widespread scepticism and misinformation about the virus and the vaccines.

“Our country is going through some of its toughest moments,” he wrote. “You can’t pray that rising water tide [won’t] drown you because you believe in God. You have to pray and run away from the rising tide.”

Case numbers in the nation of about nine million people are soaring. Hospitals have been unable to cope as wards have filled and health workers have been infected.

As of Monday, the country had recorded 3359 cases and 36 fatalities, including the death last week of 53-year-old MP Richard Mendani. Testing rates are extremely low and actual case numbers are believed to be much higher.

On Tuesday, PNG received its first shipment of vaccines – a supply of 8480 AstraZeneca doses provided by Australia. But this batch will not be enough to immunise front-line health and emergency workers.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has promised to provide one million AstraZeneca doses from the supply that Australia is contracted to receive, but it is not clear when these will be available.

Jonathan Pryke, of the Lowy Institute, told The Saturday Paper that Australia’s support had been crucial but was not enough to “stop PNG falling into a complete health catastrophe”.

He said Australia should work with churches and the private sector to roll out the vaccine and with “the elites, NRL players, Facebook, and [communications provider] Digicel” to counter misinformation.

“We can afford to be bold,” he said.

Democracy in retreat

Turkey: In 2011, a group of foreign ministers met in Istanbul and approved the world’s first treaty to prevent violence against women. The landmark accord, known as the Istanbul Convention, was signed by 45 countries from across Europe. It requires that governments prosecute crimes such as domestic violence and marital rape, educate police and lawyers about victims’ rights, and provide support services such as counselling and rape crisis centres.

But Turkey, the first country to sign the treaty, has now withdrawn from it.

Last weekend, Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan published a decree confirming the decision. The move followed claims by conservatives in his ruling party and its allies that the convention encourages divorce, undermines family unity and has been “hijacked” by those seeking to promote LGBTQIA+ rights.

Erdoğan, who has increasingly embraced socially conservative policies, last year criticised the convention – which he initially supported – as a “tool of hostility to our values”.

Women’s and rights groups said the treaty withdrawal would lead to the deaths of women across Turkey.

Fidan Ataselim, from a group that tries to prevent femicide, said the government was endangering the lives of millions of women.

“You cannot confine millions of women into homes,” she said in a video posted online. “You cannot erase millions of women from the streets and squares.”

Erdoğan’s move prompted widespread international criticism, including from Germany, France, the European Union and US President Joe Biden, who released a statement condemning the decree.

“Countries should [not be] rejecting international treaties designed to protect women and hold abusers accountable,” he said. “This is a disheartening step backward.”

Spotlight: Vaccine tensions

The European Union this week threatened to block vaccine exports to Britain, expressing concern that Europe lacks supplies despite providing millions of doses to Britain.

Germany, France and Italy are currently facing surges in Covid-19 cases and have imposed new lockdowns and restrictions, while central and eastern Europe have some of the world’s highest death rates.

But vaccination rates in Europe are relatively low, especially since it is a major global exporter of vaccines. It has exported about 41 million vaccine doses, including more than 10 million to Britain. As of Monday, Britain had administered about 30 million vaccine doses, more than Germany, France and Italy combined.

The EU has threatened to curb exports of vaccines, largely aiming its anger at Britain, which it effectively accused of failing to share supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“European citizens are growing angry and upset at the fact that the vaccine rollout has not happened as rapidly as we had anticipated,” EU commissioner Maireád McGuinness told BBC News.

“We didn’t get anything from the British, while we are delivering vaccines to them.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who oversaw the country’s withdrawal from the EU on December 31, urged Brussels not to proceed with a “blockade”.

The EU was expected to introduce new controls on exports of vaccines by the end of the week, potentially enabling governments to ban exports to countries that have higher vaccination rates. Earlier this month, Italy blocked the export of 250,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses to Australia, saying that it lacked supplies and did not view Australia as a “vulnerable” country. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 27, 2021 as "EU virus surge sparks fight over vaccine exports to Britain".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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