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Medical Diplomacy in the Arab World: COVID-19 Vaccines and Tunisia’s Ongoing Crisis

posted on: Aug 4, 2021

Medical Diplomacy in the Arab World: COVID-19 Vaccines and Tunisia’s Ongoing Crisis
The country of Tunisia is currently experiencing a huge surge in COVID-19 cases and the Arab World is responding by providing critical aid in the form of vaccines via the practice of ‘medical diplomacy’. Photo: World Bank Group

By: Claire Boyle / Arab America Contributing Writer


The Arab World continues to grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic, and with the advancements of the COVID-19 vaccine, an interesting new trend in diplomacy is emerging throughout the region. In recent weeks, countries in the Arab World (like much of the rest of the planet) have seen an increase in COVID-19 cases, and with that, the sharing of vaccines is becoming a soft-power tool of diplomacy used between these nations. This is called medical diplomacy, and it is becoming a fast-growing concept in the Arab World due to the ongoing pandemic. This article will explore the definition of medical diplomacy, review the recent developments of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Arab World, provide some background on the highly infectious ‘Delta’ variant, and give a sense as to how vaccine diplomacy is being applied throughout the region, specifically, in the current crisis country of Tunisia.

What is Medical Diplomacy?

Medical Diplomacy in the Arab World: COVID-19 Vaccines and Tunisia’s Ongoing Crisis
An example of medical diplomacy in the COVID-19 era: China shipped masks worldwide in the beginning stages of the pandemic. Photo: Wilson Center

Medical diplomacy is defined as “the provision of medical assistance or aid for the purpose of furthering national goals. It is often considered to be soft power, but it does have various aspects of hard power as well.” Furthermore, the concept of soft power is defined as “the ability to attract and co-opt, rather than coerce. It usually includes using tools of culture, foreign policy, and appeals” as opposed to utilizing force.

Cuba and Taiwan are the most famous examples who use medical diplomacy as part of their day-to-day international policies, but due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, it is also becoming a favorite tool among foreign relations policymakers and governments throughout the Arab World. In the COVID-19 age of medical diplomacy, the items that are being sent the most by many countries include masks, medical supplies, ventilators, and now vaccines.

Review of the Recent Developments of the COVID-19 Pandemic in the Arab World:

Medical Diplomacy in the Arab World: COVID-19 Vaccines and Tunisia’s Ongoing Crisis
The COVID-19 Pandemic Map of cases throughout the Arab World by Johns Hopkins University. Photo: Johns Hopkins University/Arab Center Washington, DC

COVID-19 continues to heavily impact areas of the Arab World much like the rest of the planet, but there are definitely some interesting new developments of note throughout the region.

-In April 2021, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) created a partnership between “Sinopharm CNBG and Abu Dhabi’s G42 to manufacture the Arab World’s first COVID-19 vaccine. [This vaccine will be called] the ‘Hayat-Vax’ (meaning life-vax),” and the UAE is hoping this will aid in their fight against COVID-19.

-As of July 2021, it has been announced that the Arab World countries of “Egypt and Morocco, in addition, to the UAE are producing their own COVID-19 vaccines.”

-The production of COVID-19 vaccines and the shipment of them to other countries throughout the Arab region is being called an act of “vaccine diplomacy” which is the newest form of medical diplomacy being utilized.

-As of late July 2021, the country of Tunisia continues to see a huge increase of COVID-19 cases and it is also causing issues of government and economic instability.

-On July 26, 2021, “Tunisia’s Prime Minister was fired and the parliament was dissolved by President Kais Saied due to protests over the handling of the country’s growing COVID-19 crisis.”

-Other countries in the Arab World including “Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco, Egypt, and Qatar have pledged sending COVID-19 vaccines, field hospitals, and medical supplies to prevent Tunisia’s healthcare system from collapsing.”

Background on the Highly-Infectious ‘Delta Variant’ and How It is Affecting Tunisia:

Medical Diplomacy in the Arab World: COVID-19 Vaccines and Tunisia’s Ongoing Crisis
Tunisian doctors work in a makeshift hospital caring for a COVID-19 patient. Photo: Barron’s

Tunisia, a North African country in the Arab World is currently battling the highly infectious Delta variant of COVID-19 which public health officials at Yale Medicine have classified as “50% more transmissible than any of the previous or original strains of the virus.” Furthermore, the greatest risk of catching the “Delta variant are among those who are unvaccinated” which, unfortunately, make up the majority of Tunisia’s population and other parts of the Arab World as well. Finally, to make things even more interesting, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has labeled Delta as “a variant of concern.”

On July 31, 2021, Tunisia reported over “3,400 new cases of COVID-19, and their seven-day average stands at over 3,600 new cases.” The concerning thing right now is the high transmissibility rate of the Delta variant which leads to more people getting infected. Scientists use what is called the “‘R naught number’ to calculate how contagious an infectious disease is and how quickly it reproduces when transmitted to new people.” The ‘R naught number’ in the original strain of the virus meant that one person could potentially infect “another 2.3 to 2.7 unaware people; however, what researchers are seeing with Delta is highly concerning.” This is because “Delta’s ‘R naught number’ is 5-8, meaning that one person can potentially infect another 5-8 people,” then the newly-infected go infect others, and eventually the numbers climb exponentially from there.

Vaccine Diplomacy in Tunisia:

Medical Diplomacy in the Arab World: COVID-19 Vaccines and Tunisia’s Ongoing Crisis
COVID-19 Vaccines. Photo: LifeSpan

Tunisia is experiencing its greatest threat to public health in the form of a huge surge in COVID-19 cases. Tunisia’s current COVID-19 crisis is causing other countries throughout the Arab World that have the medical resources, funding, and supplies to practice ‘vaccine diplomacy’ in an effort to further their own national interests and also provide critical aid to a faltering healthcare system.

Medical Diplomacy in the Arab World: COVID-19 Vaccines and Tunisia’s Ongoing Crisis
A map of the Arab World countries. Photo: IMGBIN

The map above gives a sense of how the tactic of “vaccine diplomacy is now taking on a regional dimension.” Algeria, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have all announced plans to send over “1.75 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to Tunisia which is battling a recent surge in the number of new cases.” As one can probably synthesize, Algeria is within very close proximity to Tunisia, so the threat of them experiencing a similar surge is somewhat high so it is beneficial for them to provide these vaccines.

Now the question is, why are Saudi Arabia which is much further away distance-wise sending medical and vaccination supplies? The thought for Saudi Arabia is that they are “trying to reassert their role, particularly in the charity aid sector of which the country has traditionally been proud of,” and to shift the balance-of-power in their favor and because they have the spending power to effectively execute vaccine diplomacy in the Arab region.

So, as Tunisia’s cases continue to climb, numerous countries in the Arab World are coming to their aid including “Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Algeria, Morocco, and the Tunisian government has also promised to provide over “4 million vaccine doses that it purchased from both the Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer stocks.”


Medical Diplomacy in the Arab World: COVID-19 Vaccines and Tunisia’s Ongoing Crisis
A stylized image of a COVID-19 vaccine. Photo: Yale Medicine

Hopefully, Tunisia will be able to get its coronavirus surge under control, but it will take increased international cooperation and tools such as vaccine and medical diplomacy to solve the global crisis. For now, it is important to be knowledgeable of the recent events and developments that have led up to this health crisis, and also what is being done by the rest of the Arab World to assist their neighbors, and prevent many more from becoming infected with COVID-19. Only time will tell if these diplomatic efforts are successful and whether other opportunities will arise for cooperation in the future from this endeavor.

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