The summer of disaster

August 06, 2021 08:42
Photo: Reuters

The world is facing two disasters that are making the COVID-19 crisis doubly worse than it ought to be. The first is the rise of the Delta variant, which is twice as contagious and 1.5-2 times deadlier than the original coronavirus. The second disaster is that Global North governments have not committed the resources to increase vaccine production to the scale needed to immunize the global population by the end of this year. Worse, the longer we drag our feet, the more likely that the immunity furnished by vaccines and previous COVID-19 infections will begin to erode.

Given these problems, it is too early to start talking about the “post-pandemic” world economy. Public health should remain the top-line priority. As for the economy, the focus should be on keeping the basic economic engine running and avoiding a massive increase in poverty. With the Delta variant running rampant, we should postpone efforts to restore economies to full-employment “normalcy” until after we have achieved some combination of vaccine and acquired herd immunity.

After all, since we cannot know what state the global economy will be in six months from now, we don’t yet know which policies will be most appropriate for driving a smooth and sustainable recovery. By the same token, we should reject proposals to “cool down” the world economy in order to avoid some shadowy inflationary spiral or a return of bond-market vigilantes in the future. The Delta variant should be met not with cooling but warming.

Outside of a few truly informed experts who unfortunately are rarely heard above the noise, our ignorance about the pandemic’s range of possible trajectories is immense. We have no clear global picture. All we can do is consider narrower samples.

The United Kingdom serves as one petri dish. The country has suffered from incompetence and widespread carelessness. And no, Prime Minister Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson did not do it all on his own, though he certainly has maintained his modus operandi of lying and somehow continuing to “fail up.” Without the rapid arrival of safe and effective vaccines, the country almost surely would have lost many more people to COVID-19 than the 130,000 (0.2% of the population) that it already has.

The well-performing East Asian countries offer a second petri dish. After long proving effective, their world-beating spread-control mechanisms are now cracking under the pressure of the Delta variant. We can conclude that these measures are necessary but not sufficient, with their uses limited to buying time for universal vaccination programs.

A third petri dish is the United States. The lesson here is not that an inept government can stumble into herd immunity because it has the power of the Global North’s biotech industry behind it. Nor are there lessons to draw about an evolving virus overcoming any and all infection-suppression measures. The real lesson from the US is that it is in a league of its own. More than 600,000 people have died from COVID-19, and that figure seems poised to rise by another 100,000 in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the message being blared by Fox News and most other right-wing outlets goes something like this:

‘Superman-President Donald Trump quarterbacked the incredibly successful Operation Warp Speed project, which performed biotech miracles and created a highly effective vaccine against a disease that is just like the flu. But now, the vaccines are untested and unsafe. We should never have worn masks. The virus is a Chinese bioweapon funded by Dr. Fauci, who constantly gave Trump bad advice about this gigantic hoax. The medical establishment is suppressing information about truly useful medications like ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, and hydrogen peroxide.’

If this conspiratorial word salad sounds crazy, consider the terrifying fact that around one-quarter of the American population apparently believes it (or at least some part of it). One-fifth of Americans think that the US government is using COVID-19 vaccination to implant microchips into their bodies. Tens of millions of Americans have found sufficient reason to run a 1% risk of death by refusing an extremely effective, extremely safe, widely available vaccine.

Consider the implications of this successful act of brainwashing. A country where malevolent, cynical media and political operatives can trigger such deep psychological fractures in a significant share of the population is extremely vulnerable to a wide range of threats. What will Americans fall for next? Even if the next mass psychological hacking effort is motivated merely by a desire to sell more ads, what social destruction might it leave in its trail?

The bottom line today is the same as it was a year ago, when stage-three trials first suggested that the mRNA vaccines against COVID-19 were a huge success. The obvious next step is to cut through the bureaucracy and open the money spigots to mobilize as many resources as are needed to get high-quality vaccines into every arm in the world as fast as possible. We can sort out the financing and regulatory approval issues later.

It has been a full year since the biotech wizards gave us the tools that we need to beat the virus. Why are we still in the situation we are?

Copyright: Project Syndicate
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Former deputy assistant secretary of the US Treasury, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research.