Canada’s vaccine nationalism


Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

The data is in: Canada stands in place number 55 amongst all countries ranked by doses administered per every 100 citizens. That means that 6 in 100 Canadians have received one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine. Many countries which are considered part of the developing world, moreover, are doing a faster job than Canada. Canada’s inoculation rate is half the rate of Morocco (ranked 24th) and a quarter of Chile’s rate (ranked 15th). Yet Canada is also the only G7 country to be listed as a beneficiary of COVAX, the global initiative to procure COVID-19 vaccines for low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). 

So what happened? Why is Canada’s vaccination rate so low? And why is it pulling doses out of COVAX? Finally, what does this move mean for Canada’s image on the world stage? 

Canada started buying vaccines at the end of 2020, and inoculation began on December 14th, 2020. During this early stage, Canada bought one of the highest number of shots per citizen. According to Amnesty International, Canada, at one point, had enough to vaccinate each Canadian 5 to 6 times over. This resulted in criticisms of the Canadian government from the public, other countries, doctors and the media, who all accused it of hoarding vaccines. Indeed, Canada’s over-ordering of the vaccines means that other countries who did not, at that point, get to sign up for vaccines will not be able to do so for at least another few months. However, the vaccines that Canada ordered never seemed to materialise. Nor, still today, are there clear reasons as to why. What is known is that Canada firstly focused on obtaining vaccines from the Chinese vaccine maker, CanSino. However, according to various public health experts, Canada spent too long focusing on that deal, which ended up falling apart. Already late in the game, Canada further refrained from ordering vaccines manufactured in the United States, fearing that former U.S. President Donald Trump would impose export bans as he issued an executive order that Americans had “first priority” for vaccines produced in the States. 

So Canada turned to the European Union to procure vaccines. However, it was the European manufacturing facilities that started experiencing serious road-blocks and delays, resulting in the EU issuing threats of export bans. Canada, unable to produce the vaccines itself, hoped the agreements would be honoured. 

This was when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ratings started going down as did those of his Liberal Party. Provinces stated they would no longer wait for the federal government to vaccinate their population. They decided to go their own route, with Manitoba buying two million doses from a manufacturer developing a vaccine. 

And then Canada decided to pull doses out of its pledge to COVAX. 

Here’s the thing. According to expert opinion, Canada is projected to have enough vaccines to vaccinate all willing citizens by September 2021. But LMICs will not have the amount needed to reach this same threshold. Most countries in Africa, for example, will not. Amnesty International predicts that 70 of the 92 LMICs which are to benefit from COVAX will only be able to vaccinate one in 10 citizens in 2021. 

This is the equivalent of a “moral catastrophe”, to cite the famous words of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Canada’s prioritisation of its citizens may have been rational in another situation, but in this one, its over-ordering of vaccines and usage of COVAX jabs was an irrational act and an embodiment of vaccine nationalism. 

Besides not actually contributing to solving the pandemic, these moves have marked present-day Canada in opposition to the international legacy it has been building for decades, which is not one of selfishness but of a willingness to help. Canada helped create the UN Peacekeepers, it was 2020’s most accepting country of migrants and refugees, and is one of the few wealthy countries to have formalised a gender lens to its international funding.

Canada will now have to work hard to repair the image it has shown the world through its most recent actions. It will have to show that it is invested in global health and in ending COVID-19 transmission not just in Canada, but in every country, and thus helping to end the pandemic itself.


Blamont, Matthias. 2020. “Rich Countries, Including Canada, Have Bought Too Many COVID-19 Vaccines: Amnesty.” Coronavirus. (March 6, 2021). 

“Canada.” Donor Tracker. (March 6, 2021). 

“COVAX Explained.” (March 6, 2021). 

“Covax: How Will Covid Vaccines Be Shared around the World?” 2021. BBC News. (March 6, 2021). 

C.P., Stacey. 2006. “Canadian Foreign Relations | The Canadian Encyclopedia. (March 6, 2021). 

Gray, Mackenzie. 2021. “Canada Spent $24M on COVID-19 Vaccines Received in January: StatCan.” Coronavirus. (March 6, 2021). 

McCarthy, Arthur. 2020. “Infographic: The Countries Most And Least Accepting Of Migrants.” Statista Infographics. (March 6, 2021). 

Miller, Adam. 2021. “Why Canada Is Experimenting with Delaying Second Doses of COVID-19 Vaccines Unlike Anywhere Else in the World | CBC News.” CBC. (March 6, 2021). 

Pettersson, Henrik et al. 2021. “Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker: View Vaccinations by Country.” CNN. (March 6, 2021). 

The Canadian Press. 2021. “Coronavirus: What’s Happening in Canada and around the World on Friday | CBC News.” CBC. 5937805 (March 6, 2021). 

“Why Canada Is Falling behind in Covid Vaccinations.” 2021. BBC News. (March 6, 2021).

By Dolores Cviticanin

Dolores Cviticanin completed her Bachelor degrees at Sciences Po and UBC before finishing her MSc in International Public Policy at UCL in September 2020. She has written for the United Nations Association of Canada and e-International Relations before. She is currently the Project Coordinator at the Canadian Network for International Surgery. She is passionate about feminism, health and public policy.

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