No lessons learned

INTROSPECTIVE - Tony F. Katigbak - The Philippine Star

When COVID-19 first spread across the world in 2020 it was shocking, horrific, and eye-opening. For the first time, in a very long time, it was a problem that the world had to deal with together. No one was spared – regardless of wealth or wall size. The virus swept through everything in its path and its reach went across the planet.

Those early days were intense and terrible. But at the same time, for the first time, it seemed that most were in agreement that we needed to work together to defeat this silent and deadly threat. Agreements were made between countries, vaccine research was funded, and for one very brief shining moment, it seemed that this tragedy might unite the world in a common interest.

Realists and political strategists knew this united front would not last, and that what should have brought together countries and leaders was only going to get worse and drive them apart even further. Optimists hoped that this would be the first step into more global cooperation and a platform to plan better against threats like these in the future.

Unfortunately, it looks like division is still the path moving forward, especially between the richer and poorer nations. While a lot has changed in America since former president Trump’s days, a lot has remained the same too. At least as far as international politics is concerned. And as for big business, well that also looks to be more concerned in protecting its “golden goose” than the greater good.

Not that we can blame them completely. Before COVID-19, the world was already more divided than ever before. Instead of building bridges, we built walls and countries focused inward and less on their global impact and creating sustainable partnerships with other countries. Could this type of myopic view have contributed to our current situation – Absolutely! Can it help us get out of it – not at all. Yet, here we are again with a “me first” look at global vaccinations.

The vaccine divide between rich and poor nations is glaringly obvious. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicted this was going to happen and WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had already forewarned that the ongoing vaccine imbalance would most likely give richer nations a false sense of security when the truth is, until all nations are safe and vaccinated, a looming threat will always remain.

Sure, we have made some headway in curtailing infections and death on the global scale, but not nearly enough that we can drop safety protocols and assume things are returning to normal. As of April, COVID has claimed millions of lives all over the world. In Europe, second/third waves are emerging and cities are going into lockdown again. It’s not just happening here – although their lockdowns don’t seem to need to last as long as ours. The fact remains that without a strong worldwide vaccination response, hotbeds and infection waves will continue to happen.

Unfortunately, with the vaccine imbalance being the way that it is, poorer countries will continue to remain vulnerable. At present over 80 percent of the vaccines that have been administered worldwide have gone to wealthy economies while poorer nations have seen less than one percent. This isn’t doing anything to help achieve global herd immunity.

And I understand that leaders need to ensure their people are safe first before working outward. There is nothing wrong with that. But once they have been able to safely inoculate a large enough portion of their population, they are not looking outward, but are instead focusing on purchasing more vaccines for potential second-round population vaccination.

Meanwhile, countries like India are suffering massive deaths as the country struggles to vaccinate its people. This has been another topic of heated debate. The World Trade Organization is suggesting waiving intellectual property rights on vaccines to help ramp up global production and cut the travel time needed for vaccines to get to their respective destinations.

Naturally, the pharmaceuticals and richer nations have issues with this. Even if they claim they want to help, there has been so much resistance and they claim the lack of regulatory framework and infrastructure is the main concern (which is understandable), while the fact remains that their bottom line is also a key factor.

Vaccine sharing could be a solution instead. Unfortunately, the COVAX facility, which is aiming to provide two billion doses to 190 countries, is suffering from a lack of funding and supply shortages as richer countries focus instead on buying more to complete their domestic programs instead of focusing on a concerted global effort.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame the world for our failure to procure our vaccine supply. We all know that we dropped the ball on that one. Now we have to look forward and find quick and viable solutions. We can’t afford to be complacent. Lives are being lost every day and vaccination is the best viable way forward. I just think that if we worked together around the globe, we could all find a way to rise together and be safer together too.

It’s very disheartening to see that we haven’t moved past where we were before. Nations are still divided and people remain wary of each other despite having a truly common enemy. While countries acknowledge that COVID-19 is a worldwide problem, the actions don’t seem to support a global recovery.

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