Is the pandemic killing the idea of the Commonwealth?

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When Harry and Meghan went on U.S. television this month, Canada and other Commonwealth countries went through another short-lived debate about whether to move on from the British royal connection. 

But the COVID-19 pandemic may be raising even more pointed questions about the relevance of the institution that succeeded the British Empire.

Oprah Winfrey’s interview, which aired on March 7, certainly captured more attention than Queen Elizabeth II’s annual speech to the Commonwealth, delivered on the same day. The theme of that speech was the “spirit of unity” in the face of the pandemic. “I hope we shall maintain this renewed sense of closeness and community,” she said.

A “Commonwealth Statement on COVID-19” issued in the name of all 54 heads of government made particular mention of “Small Island Developing States”:

“As Commonwealth partners, we must make a concerted effort, consistent with national capability, to find solutions to overcome these challenges, including … providing equitable access to essential medicines.”

Indeed, the idea of solidarity is evoked by the word “commonwealth,” which Merriam-Webster defines as a political unit “united by compact or tacit agreement of the people for the common good.”

But there’s a large gap between the language of Commonwealth solidarity and the reality.

Republic to the rescue

When a public health nurse became the first person in Jamaica to receive a COVID vaccine this month, her shot was a gift — not from the U.K. but from a republic that had once been a British colony itself.

India’s donation of 50,000 doses was “the best news I’ve heard in a very long time,” said Jamaica’s Health Minister Dr. Christopher Tufton.

Barbados’s PM Mia Mottley also had Indian PM Narendra Modi to thank for what she called “his quick, decisive and magnanimous action” after her country received 100,000 free doses.

Boxes of AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by the Serum Institute of India and provided through the global COVAX initiative arrive at the airport in Mogadishu, Somalia, Monday, March 15, 2021. (Farah Abdi Warsameh/AP)

After he heard that 70,000 doses were on their way from India, Dominica’s PM Roosevelt Skerrit said that he “did not imagine that the prayers of my country would be answered so swiftly.”

Barbados and Dominica promptly sent some of the vaccines they’d received to Guyana and Saint Lucia.

India has vaccinated fewer than 2 per cent of its own people and now faces a rise in infections that has forced it to curb its generosity.

On a per capita basis, the U.K. is twenty times as wealthy as India and has vaccinated twenty times as many of its citizens — the highest percentage of any large nation. But India is the country sharing vaccines with Britain’s former colonies in the Caribbean.

The Commonwealth was an attempt to create something that would live on after the slow implosion of the British Empire that began with Ireland’s War of Independence in 1921 — and continues a century later with the more peaceful transformation of Barbados into a republic, scheduled to happen by November 2021.

The Commonwealth was created in 1931, the same year Canada gained more or less full legal autonomy from the United Kingdom.

Although it includes 54 countries, only a core group of 16 “Commonwealth realms” still recognize Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state: Canada, Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu — and, of course, the U.K. itself.

Generous, but in other ways

It’s not that Britain has been ungenerous. In recent years, it’s been the most generous supporter of GAVI, the international vaccine alliance now leading the COVAX initiative to provide vaccines to poorer countries.

“The COVAX Advance Market Commitment is the global mechanism to help developing countries, including qualifying Commonwealth countries, access a coronavirus vaccine,” Tom Walsh of the British High Commission in Ottawa told CBC News.

Britain’s Prince William speaks to staff during a visit to the vaccination centre at Westminster Abbey, London, Tuesday, March 23, 2021 to pay tribute to the efforts of those involved in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. (Aaron Chown/AP)

“The U.K. is leading efforts for global equitable access to COVID vaccines and treatments. The U.K. is working closely with multilateral institutions such as the UN, G7, G20, and with WHO and international partners such as CEPI and Gavi, to ensure developing countries can access COVID-19 vaccines, treatments and tests.”

The Commonwealth is a multilateral institution of 54 nations. But it’s no longer the institution through which Britain conducts its most important business — nor does London feel particularly beholden to Commonwealth nations when it comes to vaccines.

Membership may or may not have its privileges 

At least one former European colonial power did choose to help its old colonies. Portugal is donating 5 per cent of the doses it receives under the EU’s vaccine-sharing scheme to its former colonies in Africa and East Timor. It made that decision even though those countries declared independence decades ago — and there is no Portuguese version of the Commonwealth.

New Guinea was a colony of Australia (not Britain) from 1906 until 1975. When COVID hit fully independent Papua New Guinea, Australia sent vaccines it had acquired in Europe and promised to send more.

“They’re our family, they’re our friends, they’re our neighbours, they’re our partners,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

Something similar happened in self-governing Caribbean island countries that were once Dutch colonies, and that still recognize King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands as their head of state. Sint Maarten, Aruba and Curacao have received a considerable amount of support from the Dutch during the pandemic, including large shipments of the Pfizer vaccine.

(The three islands are neither colonies nor fully independent UN members. They are considered separate countries but constituent parts of a multinational Kingdom of the Netherlands that is a much closer association than the Commonwealth.)

Martyn Roper, the British governor of the Cayman Islands, receives his second and final dose of Pfizer vaccine on January 28, 2021. (Facebook)

Some Caribbean islands chose to remain full-on colonies of Britain, including the Caymans, the Turks and Caicos and Bermuda, and they have received vaccines from the U.K. with great generosity.

On March 10, Martyn Roper, the British governor of the Caymans, announced on his Facebook page that “by early May, all those over the age of 16 who want to be vaccinated could have received their second dose.”

But if being a colony during a pandemic has its advantages, mere membership in the Commonwealth doesn’t appear to come with any perks at all.

No reason to ask

Perhaps there is no clearer sign of the fading relevance of the Commonwealth than the fact that Britain didn’t offer to share vaccines with its sister nations — and those nations also didn’t bother to ask.

The office of Public Services and Procurement Minister Anita Anand — the minister charged with bringing vaccines to Canada — told CBC News it’s their “understanding that the vaccines produced in the United Kingdom have been, and continue to be, intended for the U.K. population.”

Instead, Canada turned for help to the republic next door — the country that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls “our nearest ally and closest friend.”

And that friend obliged, although the United States has vaccinated a much lower share of its population than the U.K.

“It’s just wonderful that we’re able to come to an arrangement for 1.5 million doses coming into this country before the end of March,” Anand told CBC News.

And so Canadians will receive a solidarity boost of British vaccine … thanks to their American cousins.





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