The saddest thing about the emergence of the omicron variant is its utter predictability. For months, even longer, public health officials have been warning that as long as the coronavirus can circulate freely and widely, it would change its form, and that those mutations could be more difficult to handle than the original variant. In October, former British prime minister, Gordon Brown predicted this. He said: “We in the West may feel safe and blessed at the moment, because we’ve had the vaccines, but we may find a new variant that comes out of Africa or Asia, where people have not been vaccinated and are not protected. And it obviously isn’t susceptible to the vaccines that we have at the moment.”
The solution was also utterly obvious: to vaccinate the rest of the world — and fast. But that never happened, and the resulting disparities are stunning. Close to 70 percent of the European Union and about 60 percent of the United States have been fully vaccinated, and yet only about 8 percent of people in the world’s poorest countries have received even one dose. Earlier this year, this failure could be attributed to a problem of production and supply. But the world is now producing 1.5 billion doses of vaccine monthly. The problem has been one of distribution — or, to put it bluntly, of the rich world hoarding vaccines at the expense of the poor. By the end of September this year, the rich countries of the world — United States, European Union, United Kingdom, Canada and China — were estimated to have a surplus of around 670 million doses of vaccines, according to the health data company Airfinity. And this is accounting for every person over 12 in these countries being fully vaccinated plus receiving a booster.
It’s estimated that 100 million of the doses stored by Western countries will expire and have to be thrown away by the end of the year if they are not used — and yet they sit stockpiled while the poorest 1.6 billion people in the world have only about 5 percent of the world’s vaccinations.
This is not a case of global institutions failing. There exists an effective mechanism to share and distribute the vaccines worldwide, COVAX, set up by a group of international health organizations. But rich countries have been stingy about actually making donations. The United States pledged the most — 1.2 billion doses — but so far has delivered just around 280 million. The European Union, Iceland and Norway have collectively pledged about 500 million doses and delivered about 112 million. China has recently increased its pledge to 850 million doses, up from 100 million, and has delivered about 89 million. As a result, 82 countries are at risk of falling short of the World Health Organization’s goal of vaccinating 40 percent of every country’s population by the end of the year, which means that the virus will keep replicating and mutating freely among billions of people. What is the chance that we will not see another variant in the next year?
Vaccinating the world would be good for the world economy — meaning mostly the rich countries that dominate it. In May, the International Monetary Fund released a proposal that calculated that vaccinating everyone by 2022 would cost $50 billion. But a failure to do so could cost the world $9 trillion by 2025. Put another way, an investment of 0.06 percent of global gross domestic product could have a 180-fold return.
Covid-19 and public health are not the only areas where we see a self-destructive nationalism at work. The hot economic topic these days is inflation and what is causing it. The Biden administration’s covid relief spending is often blamed for triggering it, and it has almost certainly played some role. Strikingly, though, we see rising inflation almost everywhere, including in countries that did not spend freely after the pandemic. So what could explain global inflation?
Protectionist policies such as Donald Trump’s trade war with China and President Biden’s Buy American. Former treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers recently wrote that, “Tariff reduction is the most important supply-side policy the administration could undertake to combat inflation.”
The connection between rising protectionism and inflation is obvious. For the past three decades, countries have been aggressively sourcing goods from across the world because they are cheaper. Once they began reshoring, finding domestic supplies and putting in place versions of Biden’s “Buy American” provisions, they are paying more for those same goods. Add to this supply chain disruptions and sudden increases in demands for goods and you have inflation rising everywhere. Just last week, the Biden administration doubled tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber.
So far, the rhetoric of nationalism has been cheap. But as countries have turned that rhetoric into policy, the costs are mounting. They are being felt by the poorest in the world and will hurt the working classes in rich countries the most. The answer is greater global cooperation — in public health, trade and more. But will any national leader dare to say this?