Health equilibrium

Published June 10, 2021, 12:31 AM

by Diwa C. Guinigundo

Of substance and spirit

Diwa C. Guinigundo

Last January 2021, World Health Organization (WHO) head Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was quoted by BBC News saying that it was not fair for younger, healthy people in richer nations to be vaccinated before the older, more vulnerable people in poorer states. Dr. Tedros cited that over 39 million doses had been given in 49 richer jurisdictions, or around 800,000 doses each, compared to one poor nation getting only 25 doses.

This was at the beginning of the massive vaccination program of most of the world’s biggest democracies. China and Russia also sought mass resiliency against COVID-19. No one can fault the vaccine-manufacturing countries of China, India, Russia, the UK and the US for prioritizing their own citizens for the jab.

WHO further argued that “the world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure — and the price of this failure will be paid with lives and livelihoods in the world’s poorest countries.”

What is sad is that this moral failure did not immediately resonate with the world’s largest democracies until it dawned on them that we are in a sensitive health equilibrium. This “me-first approach” is oblivious of its self-defeating implications; vaccine prices could escalate and encourage hoarding.  As a result, the pandemic could be prolonged. Sustained rampage of the virus and its variants could further produce fear that hinders consumption and investment by reining in people’s animal spirit, the propensity to move around and perform their economic role.

We don’t have to look far to vet the outcome of this sad reality.

Our own experience illustrates that negligence in imposing international travel restriction, procurement and rollout of vaccines produced massive infection and mortalities, allowing time for the Wuhan virus to mutate into more transmissible and perhaps more fatal variant. Community quarantines involved more lockdowns than anything else and we found ourselves trying to climb up from the deepest economic recession since WW II.  Economic scarring in the labor, capital and credit markets was serious. We don’t expect growth to be restored to pre-pandemic levels by this year or the next.

It is not surprising that four multilateral institutions namely the IMF, World Bank, WHO and World Trade Organization (WTO) decided to issue an important document last June 1, 2021 — “A New Commitment for Vaccine Equity and Defeating the Pandemic.” Their timing could not have been more perfect than before the G7 Summit in the United Kingdom this week.

These multilaterals asserted that “there will be no broad-based recovery without an end to the health crisis. Access to vaccination is key to both.” They were honest to admit that as some affluent countries rolled out the vaccines to most of their populations, many in the developing countries have not even received their initial shot, a “two-track pandemic” indeed.

For us, the most striking message is that inequitable vaccine distribution has resulted in new variants spreading back to these countries with advanced program of vaccination. Reimposition of strict health protocols and lockdown is inevitable. While economic fortunes are heading in different directions, it pays for those ahead to share what they have because of the health backlash and the ultimate hollowing of their overseas markets.

Nothing is inexorable about the situation.

This global solution could do something about it. A new level of cooperation and mutual support, complete with funding to vaccinate the world, can be explored.

This proposal does not come cheap. It is expected to reach $50 billion, or almost P2.5 trillion. This is steep but it could put down the pandemic faster especially in poorer countries, bring down infection and deaths, enable economic revival and trigger an estimated $9 trillion in incremental global GDP by 2025.

Several components are essential. This ambitious program should vaccinate 30 percent of the global population by end-2021 and up to 60 percent by the first half of 2022. Concessional financing, grants, donations, and trade cooperation are empowering.

The world should invest in additional vaccine production by at least one billion doses. It also needs to diversify production, share technology and scale up health surveillance. Testing and tracing, oxygen supplies, therapeutic and public health measures should be strengthened. Vaccine deployment should be accelerated.

These multilaterals are working together to ensure broader support through a possible increase in Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) of the IMF. WHO is pushing for financing to incentivize know-how and technology-sharing. World Bank is encouraging vaccine-supply expansion projects in at least 50 countries by mid-2021. WTO is working on de-clogging supply chains for vaccine production.

This international initiative is a clear signal it is about time we finished the virus.

The efforts should be fruitful because the proponents recognize there is a problem and it is serious and global. Those who believe they are doing an excellent job mitigating the pandemic in one small territory must be suffering from some illusion of control. They are no different from that man in the city who would raise a red flag daily claiming he was driving the crocodiles away. When told there are no crocodiles in the city, he was even proud to say he must be doing a great job.

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