Bad start for vaccine diplomacy

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Bad start for vaccine diplomacy

Only 4.7 percent of Koreans had received first vaccination shots against Covid-19 as of Tuesday. The country is ranked 35th among 37 OECD member countries — and around 70th globally. If you measure it based on the number of people who have received a second shot, Korea’s rank falls even further. Only 0.2 percent of the Korean population has had both jabs so far.

That data goes a lot way to explaining why Koreans don’t trust what their government says. If the government really wants to achieve herd immunity by November as President Moon Jae-in promised, it must mobilize all available means to procure enough vaccines and administer them. Otherwise, Korea will lag behind other countries irreversibly on the vaccine front.

But what Moon is saying dumbfounds us. In a meeting with aides in the Blue House Monday, he pointedly criticized developed countries for so-called vaccine nationalism, including bans on exports of vaccines and “hoarding.” His remarks were apparently aimed at the United States, the leader in vaccine production. The comments he made at the 2021 Boao Forum for Asia hosted in China last week were a sharp contrast with his sincere appreciation for “China’s effort to donate its vaccines to developing countries.” Moon’s statement reflects his respect for China and disrespect for America — again.

His pronouncements translate into a call to resolve mankind’s common challenges like the pandemic through international cooperation. But the grim realities around the globe hardly led themselves to such an idealistic argument. Moon can’t wish away a critical shortage of vaccines in Korea.

The people want Moon to find a breakthrough in vaccine supplies on his visit to the United States for a summit with President Joe Biden. In a poll released by the Federation of Korean Industries Monday, 31.2 percent of respondents singled out a “vaccine swap” with the U.S. as the most important job for Moon in Washington. Given Japan’s successful vaccine procurements through Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s summit with Biden on April 16, Koreans’ expectations are natural.

Foreign Minister Chung Ui-yong said the government is discussing a vaccine swap with the Biden administration through diplomatic channels. Moon has dashed cold water on such efforts. On Tuesday, the U.S. announced a plan to share 60 million doses of vaccines with the rest of the word. But what country would give vaccines to a country that condemns it? Buoyed by previous public safety efforts, the Moon administration failed to buy enough vaccines for its people. If it blunders again on the vaccine front, it will lose public trust irrevocably.
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