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Time for a Gut Check

The Village Explainer
Time for a Gut Check
By Dan McGarry • Issue #38 • View online
The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

At this rate, the pandemic isn't going to be over any time soon.
At this rate, the pandemic isn't going to be over any time soon.
This ain't over...
We all had a moment of quiet celebration as we put the year 2020 behind us. With good reason, too. It appears that our collective inattention and inactivity over COVID-19 was ending. In what is nothing short of a monument to human achievement and ingenuity, we managed to roll out not just one, but several vaccines. All of them are effective; all of them are safe.
Now all we have to do is get the needles into people’s arms.
I’ve already carped about the lack of global coordination in vaccine distribution, and the substantial risks this creates:
Doing the Numbers - The Village Explainer
While the development of the vaccines will be seen as a milestone of human development for generations to come, we run a substantial risk of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The United States, Brasil, the EU, Australia and Japan are all opposed to the WHO proposal to temporarily remove patent protections from vaccines and related products in order to speed the much-needed technology transfer we need to get these miracle medicines rolled out quickly.
Australia’s support for this measure is strikingly at odds with its own self-interest. Supply shortages have made a mockery of its plan to immunise 4 million of its citizens by the end of the month.
And yet, experts argue these delays are perfectly fine:
‘Not concerned’: Time to stop worrying about the vaccine rollout?
To be completely fair, Professor Crabb’s argument is altruistic: Every injection received by an Australian is an injection denied to someone in a location where community transmission is ending lives.
He’s dead right about that.
And arguably, he’s being nothing but pragmatic when he matter-of-factly accepts that border closures, quarantine and other barriers to travel and commerce will continue into the mid-term.
From where we sit here in the Pacific, though, that attitude is frustratingly complacent.
The problem is, he’s not wrong. If we accept the state of things as they are, that is.
That takes a lot of accepting.
The continued lack of will to coordinate a global response to what is clearly a global challenge is astonishing. There is no scenario in which the current state of affairs is even remotely optimal.
It’s not even slightly controversial to say that market forces are inappropriate (or at least, insufficient) drivers for certain activities. That’s pretty much Keynes’ entire point. I’d like to see a market that has more volatility and less stability than the sale of life-saving medicines in a pandemic.
COVAX is the vaccine delivery pillar of the ACT Accelerator, an ad hoc international response to the pandemic. It was developed primarily by the WHO and European Commission, with significant impetus from France. Russia is the only major economy that has not joined.
If we look at the latest funding numbers for their pandemic response efforts, they’re discouragingly low. Barely a third of the 2021 budget has been raised, a full quarter of the way into the year, and nearly half of that was only secured in late February.
The ACT Accelerator interactive funding tracker
The lack of coordination in funding is confidence-shaking. Germany is the single largest contributor to the ACT Alliance. Not the USA. Not the EU. Not the EC.
France, one of the principle cheerleaders, has given less than half as much as Bill Gates has.
And notwithstanding all the dumbshit conspiracies, he is far from the largest donor. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is responsible for a mere 3.1 percent of the total.
By the bye, that’s about five times more than Australia has donated.
Tiktok(!!) has donated more to the ACT Alliance than Qatar, Iceland, Finland, Ireland, Greece and Luxembourg have, respectively. And Mark Zuckerberg(!!!) has donated 2 ½ times what Tiktok has.
By rights, COVAX should have been for everyone. Literally everyone. Every single country should have pooled its capacity and leveraged state powers to make the vaccines as widely and cheaply available as humanly possible.
It sounds blindingly obvious when you actually say it out loud.
Every self-respecting epidemiologist will tell you that you need to treat the population as a whole to get the quickest and most effective end to disease transmission. Rich or poor, a hotspot is a hotspot and should be triaged first.
That was Professor Crabb’s point in the SMH today.
And yet, it’s been every country for itself in the rush to acquire vaccines. And China, a COVAX member, has even been accused of showing a willingness to use access to its vaccines as a soft power lever.
We can only hope that Australia will not be drawn into a tit-for-tat in PNG and elsewhere in the Pacific. Even to hint that a non-Chinese vaccine (or vice versa) might be more advantageous to their future relationship would be infuriating and likely to cause lasting diplomatic damage.
The last thing anyone needs in this environment is for public figures to start showing a preference for one vaccine over another. They are all demonstrably safe and effective.
It is trivially easy to envision how a truly global rollout could work. It would be huge, clumsy, cumbersome, expensive, inefficient… and effective. But for reasons that defy… er, reason, no prominent world leader appears to have even discussed the possibility.
Pardon the Dickensian finish, but this pandemic is providing future historians with some of the best examples we’ve seen in a century of our genius for creation, and for self-destruction.
Volumes will be written about the incredible advances we made in response to this crisis, and how we squandered them through complacency, selfishness and petty, tawdry one-upmanship.
It is to weep.
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Dan McGarry

The Village Explainer is a semi-regular newsletter containing analysis and insight focusing on under-reported aspects of Pacific societies, politics and economics.

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Dan McGarry - Port Vila, Vanuatu