It’s been a tough few months for those who want to believe in the better angels of human nature. At the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, we saw yet again that when it comes to global calamity, the dominant discourse is still every man or woman for themselves. Ask not if the water rises unless, it seems, it rises for you.
The emergence of the Omicron Covid variant has dealt another blow to the idealists. As we fret about our holiday parties and shuttered Christmas markets in Europe, our gates are clanging shut to travellers from southern Africa, even though we know now that Omicron was probably in Europe before it was identified in South Africa’s cutting-edge labs.
Here in Britain, we are rushing to get booster jabs into people’s arms. Our response is to look inwards, to wonder if we really will get the Christmas “we deserve” this year. If there is a Christmas lyric that encapsulates where we are at this point in the pandemic, it is probably the anguished voice of Bono bellowing: “Tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”.
The story goes that Bono did not want to sing that line until Bob Geldof explained it was not a gloat but rather a pained recognition of the unfairness of life. The Band Aid song might be deemed cringily out-of-date now but that lyric rings truer than ever in our pandemic world where rich countries hoard vaccines, renege on their promises to poorer nations and block efforts to waive intellectual property rights so vaccines can be made more cheaply.
If the Covid crisis has revealed everyday heroes living in our midst, it has also shone an unforgiving light on governments that are ill-equipped – professionally and morally – to lead with any semblance of compassion or competence.
So it was that prime minister Boris Johnson, announcing the return of mandatory mask wearing with nary a hint of discomfort over his own recent and very public mask-avoidance, sought to portray Britain as a, you guessed it, world leader in sharing vaccines. He also sought to put much of the blame for variant rises on vaccine hesitancy in Africa.
Former prime minister, and now World Health Organisation (WHO) ambassador for global health financing, Gordon Brown hit back. Writing in the Independent, he said chief medical and scientific advisers, Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, needed to acquaint Johnson with some basic medical facts and demand he retract his mistaken statements.
“The British government, through Johnson, told us that the UK has been ‘leading’ the effort to vaccinate the world, and has been the most generous of all in gifting vaccines to poorer countries – and the real hurdle was “vaccine hesitancy” and “low take-up”. The tragedy facing people in Africa today – Johnson appeared to say – is not the lack of vaccines but their unwillingness to get vaccinated,” Brown wrote.
“Not for the first time, Johnson has shown a casual disregard for the facts. But this time his erroneous claims – and the result – a longer-term failure to speed up the delivery of unused Covid-19 vaccines to Africa, is putting lives at risk not only in Africa but round the world. Any complacency about low vaccination and testing rates in poorer countries will not just put Christmas 2021 at risk but may leave us facing similar problems of a half-vaccinated world next year – and even next Christmas.”
It’s a compelling argument, though one wonders if it will resonate with a prime minister under fire on Wednesday for allegedly hosting a “boozy party” in Downing Street during last year’s bleak mid-winter lockdown? A prime minister who has demonstrated repeatedly that he believes rules are for others. He may not be the perfect person to be a “world leader” in caring for those amorphous others.
Only 54.5% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. And only 6% of people in low-income countries have received one dose.
Richer countries, including the UK, could, at least, try to meet their commitments on vaccine donations. After the G7 summit in Cornwall in July, leaders pledged one billion Covid vaccines for poorer countries. Host Johnson said the G7 leaders had pledged to supply the vaccines to poor countries – including 100 million from the UK – either directly or through the Covax scheme, which is being co-led by the WHO, Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
But writing in the Independent, Brown said these targets had not been met.
“The British government lags on donations. While America promised to donate 1 billion doses, and Europe 550 million, to the poorest parts of the world, the UK has promised only 100 million doses. It’s a serious enough failure when even America has delivered only 25 per cent of its promised tally, and the European Union only 19 per cent. Indeed, only 11 per cent of Britain’s promised donation has been delivered, leaving all of us at risk when – through no fault of their own – a number of countries have found themselves at the centre of outbreaks of new variants of the virus,” he wrote.
Dr. Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, the eloquent co-chair of the African Union’s Vaccine Delivery Alliance, had no qualms calling out the world’s selfishness after news of the Omicron variant broke.
“What is going on right now is inevitable: it’s a result of the world’s failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent and speedy manner… It is a result of vaccine-hoarding by high-income countries of the world, and quite frankly it is unacceptable,” she told the BBC.
“Had the first SARS-Covid virus — the one that was first identified in China last year — originated in Africa, it is now clear that the world would have locked us away and thrown away the key. There would have been no urgency to develop vaccines for it, we would have been expendable, Africa would have become known as the continent of Covid,” she said.
There is also the question of intellectual property rights on vaccines. India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily waive intellectual property rights on vaccines and therapies at the World Trade Organisation but negotiations are deadlocked with India saying that developed countries, led by the European Union, Switzerland and the UK were “preventing access to vaccines for poor countries”.
Experts agree that this will not be our last pandemic. Neither will it be humanity’s greatest challenge. That dubious honour will most likely be reserved for saving our planet from ourselves. But if the Covid has pandemic shone a light on some of our finest human traits – ingenuity, empathy and solidarity – it also revealed the limits of global leadership to the detriment of all our futures, and our shared humanity.