May 18, 2021

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Column: COVID won’t end anywhere until it ends everywhere

Column: COVID won't end anywhere until it ends everywhere

Despite recent setbacks in Michigan and elsewhere, the United States is gradually approaching the day when we may be able to declare the COVID-19 pandemic under control, within our borders, that is.

But that doesn’t mean the problem has ended in the rest of the world – or even here at home in the long run.

Until there is worldwide control of the virus, the pandemic will continue to affect our health, our economy and even our security from terrorism.

The first reason is obvious: the coronavirus will not stand still. As long as there are large pockets of people transmitting the virus, it will mutate and those variants, potentially less reactive to our current vaccines, will travel here from Brazil, South Africa and wherever else they appear.

On this point alone, the world’s inability to provide vaccines to the countries most in need is more than a scandal; it is a crisis. Dozens of countries, mostly in Africa, have not received any vaccines.

The head of the World Health Organization noted last week that in rich countries, about 1 in 4 adults have been vaccinated; in poor countries, the number is less than 1 in 500.

For example, Pakistan, a country with over 230 million nuclear weapons, has vaccinated less than 0.5% of its population.

Vaccine nationalism was the rule, not the exception. The governments of rich countries have cornered as many vaccines as possible to take care of their citizens, who are not by chance also voters.

Pharmaceutical companies have rejected requests from India, South Africa and other countries to waive patent protection for their vaccines. It’s understandable from a business perspective, but if Big Pharma doesn’t do more to end the shortage, people around the world will blame the United States and other wealthy nations, not just Pfizer and Moderna.

And that brings us to the other less obvious effects of a long-term pandemic – and there are many, as two recent reports from the US intelligence community have explained.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic marks the most significant and singular global upheaval since World War II, with implications for health, economy, politics and security that will spread in the years to come”, “Global Trends” of National Intelligence Council report warned.

Let’s start with the economic impact. Our economy is recovering, but the pandemic recession still has a long way to go in poor countries. The intelligence community reported that food insecurity around the world is on track for more than double, from 135 million people in 2019 to 330 million expected by the end of 2021.

A protracted pandemic would be “a profound economic tragedy for those countries,” Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen said last week, “but [it] it would also be a problem for America. “

Then there is the migration. When the economies of poor countries collapse, desperate people move to richer places: West Africans and Syrians in Europe, Guatemalans and Hondurans in the United States.

And if people in poor nations believe their governments are mishandling the pandemic, some of those regimes will collapse, the intelligence community has warned.

“Hard-hit developing countries are experiencing financial and humanitarian crises, increasing the risk of waves of migration, collapsing governments or internal conflicts,” the director of national intelligence annual threat assessment said Tuesday.

Failed states can turn into hotbeds of terrorism, as we learned dearly two decades ago; the intelligence report found that some countries have curtailed their counter-terrorism efforts because they need to focus on the pandemic.

All this instability also presents opportunities, but not necessarily welcome ones. Assertive and autocratic governments like China’s could use the moment to push weaker neighbors. China is handling COVID-19 well; his neighbor, the Philippines, is not, and that could make him vulnerable.

Foreign aid to help end the pandemic is not an act of charity; it is an act of personal interest.

Many world leaders understand this, but rich nations, including the United States, have not yet acted.

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has proposed entrusting the Group of 7 with a multinational relief effort that could include a temporary patent waiver. “The cost will be at least $ 30 billion a year,” he wrote – but that, he stressed, is “less than 2% of the [President] Biden’s $ 1.9 trillion US bailout. “

To be sure, the United States has provided $ 4 billion to a United Nations program that is trying to deliver vaccines to poor countries, without much success so far. But it will take much longer to end the pandemic.

The pandemic will not end anywhere until it is under control everywhere. If Biden sees COVID-19 eradication as Job One, he will need to conduct a global effort before he can declare his mission accomplished.