4 min read.Updated: 21 Jun 2021, 05:35 AM ISTNitin Pai
The global failure to unite in our fight against covid could take a very high toll for much too long
What is the best way to fight a pandemic in an era of intense globalization? The answer, clearly, is for humanity to throw its combined resources against its common adversary. Since no one is safe until everyone is safe, the longer it takes for the world’s population to acquire immunity against the coronavirus, the greater the risk that whatever protection immunized populations currently enjoy will be broken by new variants.
And what would a common global response to a common threat look like? Here too the answer is clear: temporarily suspend intellectual property rights restrictions, lift export controls, remove trade barriers and eliminate regulatory friction on vaccine supply chains. Essential drugs and medical equipment should flow unrestricted to wherever they are necessary. Amid a firefight with a common enemy, it makes no sense to demand payment from an ally who urgently needs bullets.
Indeed, the approach this column has advocated for India applies to the world as a whole: increase vaccine supply by getting as many manufacturers as possible to produce them and make the vaccine available free of cost to everyone.
As clear and obvious as the answer is, the world is far from adopting it. After their summit in Cornwall last week, the G7 countries committed to share an additional 870 million doses of covid vaccines, at least half of those by 2021, bringing up their total commitment to over a billion doses. That is enough to cover a mere 15% of the population of Africa and Asia, excluding China and India. It even falls short of the original covax objective of 2 billion doses in 2021 and 1.8 billion doses to 92 lower income economies by early 2022. Even after including the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment of 500 million doses, we are far away from vaccinating enough people to contain the pandemic. Pointing to India to account for lower global supplies is tenable only if it were somehow sensible for the world to have relied on a single vendor for universal vaccination.
The abject failure of the world’s governments to shape a coordinated global response indicates that we are likely to suffer a longer disruption, more variants, more waves, and so we perhaps require vaccine updates.
It is important to ask why the world has failed. Humanity’s inability to put up a united front against a common viral adversary is a consequence of its currently dysfunctional politics. The world order is up in the air amid competition between the West and China, even as human society has made a sharp transition from the Industrial to Information Age. The institutions, mechanisms and norms of global governance are outmoded. The United Nations in general and the Security Council in particular are nowhere to be seen on any of the key issues of global concern. The G2s, P5s, G7s, G20s, NATOs, SCOs, Quads and Aseans of the world fall short because they are exclusive, and by their very nature, cannot engender global cooperation. While we can pretend that we can have ‘free trade’ within blocs and ‘security’ within regional architectures, the coronavirus exposes the reality of an absent international community.
History informs us that innocuous events can turn into catastrophic crises when the world order is weak or fraying. Europe enjoyed a century of relative peace, prosperity and progress from the time the ambitious Napoleon was defeated in 1815 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. The global order, based on balance-of-power arrangements between European powers shaped by the Congress of Vienna, began to come apart in the 1870s and by 1914 had outlived its utility. Incumbent powers refused to cede space to newcomers, resulting in a series of crises until a Balkan spark lit the accumulated gunpowder. When Woodrow Wilson proposed the League of Nations after that war, he did not propose a mere adjustment. The new institution was an entirely new way of doing international politics, based on international law and peaceful conduct. The creation of the United Nations after the disaster of World War II was similarly an attempt to create a global institution to address realities of 20th century. Unfortunately, the post-World War II setup could not reform itself fast enough to reflect 21st century realities, bringing us to where we are today.
Soon after the covid outbreak in early 2020, there was a chance to use the pandemic crisis as an opportunity to shape global cooperation that could then form the basis for a new world order. After all, as recently as 2008, world leaders had come together under the G20 platform in the wake of the global financial crisis. Sadly, this was not to be. Xi Jinping and Donald Trump were not the kind to even think of that kind of global statesmanship.
Unless the coronavirus evolves into less dangerous strains over time, there are grounds to remain pessimistic about the prospects of a quick end to the pandemic. Even so, we must retain the hope that national interests will eventually converge on fighting the pandemic together.
Perhaps there is an answer to Bob Dylan’s question of “Yes, ’n’ how many deaths will it take till he knows/That too many people have died?"
Don’t count on it, though.
Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy