Self-righteousness affecting efforts to overcome Coronavirus

Published : 29 Mar 2022 10:42 PM | Updated : 30 Mar 2022 01:33 PM

The world has been following very carefully the progression of the pandemic for the last two years. In this context a report has indicated that the COVID-19 pandemic which had continued unabated throughout 2021, had infected till then an estimated 276 million people worldwide and that more than 5.3 million people had died. At the same time attention was drawn to the fact that the reach of vaccination campaigns in developed countries had promoted cautious optimism among some public health officials that 2022 would be the year that the pandemic would begin to recede, after waves of Delta infections had created furor around the world.

Such optimism however faced a new challenge- the Omicron. The highly mutated SARS-Co-V-2 variant took rapid hold in nearly every corner of the world since South Africa reported it to the World Health Organization on November 24.

Now countries across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas are reimposing control measures in an effort to buy their already overwhelmed healthcare systems some time to adapt to the world’s newest variant of concern.

However, there have been increasing concerns once again over future global health, because of deepening health inequalities. Scientists have been stating that while highly-vaccinated populations in rich countries are being partially able to withstand the worst of Omicron, developing nations that have had little access to effective vaccines continue to face further peril.

In this context one needs to take into consideration the emerging scenario not only in China- the country from where the pandemic was first detected in late 2019, but also the evolving situation in Africa.

It was indicated on 13 March, a few weeks ago that China has imposed new curbs once again in certain areas amid their worst COVID outbreak in two years. About 17 million people have been placed under lockdown in the wake of the worst COVID outbreak in two years. China has been maintaining a strict 'zero-COVID' policy for quite some time which has included swift lockdowns, travel restrictions and mass testing when clusters have emerged. Consequently the latest outbreak virus where cases have doubled nationwide to nearly 3,400 has drawn international attention.

The southern tech hub of Shenzhen – home to about 13 million people – have told all residents to stay at home as it struggles to eradicate an Omicron flare-up linked to the neighboring virus-ravaged city of Hong Kong. The government has notified that such lockdown and a suspension of public transport might last till the end of March. Citizens have also been notified that during this period there will be three rounds of mass testing.

Similarly, a nationwide surge in cases has seen authorities close schools, businesses, restaurants and malls over close-contact fears in Shanghai, China’s biggest city. Lock down has also been started in several other northeastern cities, as almost 18 Chinese provinces are battling clusters of the Omicron and Delta variants. The city of Jilin – centre of the outbreak in the northeast – has been partially locked down, while residents of Yanji, an urban area of nearly 700,000 bordering North Korea, have been confined to their homes.

The Shenzhen sub district of Futian has also been locked down. It is home to 300,000 people and a thriving commercial district. It shares a land border crossing with Hong Kong, where the caseload over recent weeks has soared alarming officials in Beijing. It may be noted that Hong Kong currently has one of the world’s highest death rates from the virus, as the Omicron variant cuts through its elderly population among whom vaccine hesitancy proliferates.

Such action is being watched carefully because the latest flare-up appears to have been driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant and a spike in asymptomatic cases. However some Chinese health officials like Zhang Yan, a Jilin health commission official, has conceded that the response from local authorities had not been up to the mark.

As cases have increased in China, the country’s National Health Commission has announced that it would make rapid antigen tests available for citizens to buy online or from clinics for “self-testing”. Apparently, nucleic acid tests will continue to be the main method of testing, but the move suggests that China may be anticipating that official efforts might not be able to contain the virus.

It would be pertinent at this point to refer to some recent observations made by Winnie Byanyima, the UN Under-Secretary-General, and Executive Director for UNAIDS and Co-Chair of the People's Vaccine Alliance. It has been noted correctly that this pandemic will not be over for any of us until it is over for all of us.

One may recollect that on March 11 2020, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) had warned of “alarming levels of inaction” from governments as he declared that the COVID-19 outbreak had become a pandemic. The USG has remarked that two years on, though we have a number of highly effective vaccines to facilitate the curbing of the pandemic but the complacency of some governments is only making it worse.

It has been pointed out that “politicians in some rich countries are trying to move on from the pandemic; to manipulate the emotional fatigue of the public and tell them what they want to hear: that this pandemic is over”.  Such politicians as indicated earlier, want to pretend that COVID-19 is a problem of the past – and a problem for poorer countries.

In this regard it has been mentioned that tens of thousands of new coronavirus deaths and infections are still taking place in low and middle-income countries each day- and the pandemic is far from over for the global south where the true COVID-19 death toll is four times higher than in rich nations. It is also true in the case of South Korea.

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In this context, reference has been made to a singular aspect that has been taking place not only in Africa but also in parts of Latin America and in Asia. It has been common during the past 22-months lockdown to have a situation where schools remained closed and this resulted in many school-age girls to have been married away. Apparently, in Uganda some 650,000 teenage girls have become pregnant and many of them will never return to education. Such a scenario has also been watched in parts of India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Brazil.

Health specialists in Bangladesh have also correctly emphasized that removing restrictions too early will hasten the spread of COVID-19 among unvaccinated populations. Scientists are also repeatedly warning that each infection poses the risk of new variants of concern that could threaten any progress that we have made in battling the virus. That, in turn, could prolong the pandemic and all of its associated suffering.

We need to remember that leaders from our global north consisting of economically developed countries continue to remind the world that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.” However, more than two years after the pandemic started, we have seen little evidence that they have been serious in voluntarily sharing their available vaccines.

In this regard, Winnie Byanyima has observed that at regular intervals, wealthy governments push out press releases announcing donations of millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines, but they fail to mention that dose donations are sporadic, sometimes close to expiry, and do not correspond to the needs of low and middle-income countries. This can only be interpreted as vaccine inequity.

Analysts have in this regard also observed that within the paradigm of the world crisis there remains a huge untapped capacity to manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, tests, and wider treatments in the global south. The WHO feels that there are at least 120 unused facilities which are capable of making mRNA vaccines. However, rich countries have persuaded most of their pharmaceutical companies to lock the recipes behind a wall of patents and trade secrets. This course of action, in turn, is helping to create billionaire CEOs who are earning massive profits through monopolies while the pandemic misery continues to remain unresolved.

It must however be acknowledged that the USA has refrained from this monopolistic attitude in a singular manner in the case of South Africa. There, a WHO-led consortium of manufacturers has successfully developed a version of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine that was first sequenced by Moderna and the US National Institute of Health with a phenomenal injection of public funding. To the credit of the US government, they have now shared the publicly-owned aspects of this technology with the WHO. Moderna, which has filed patents in South Africa, has not been fully cooperative in this regard but the WHO plans to use mRNA technology as a base for manufacturing vaccines against other diseases, building long-term health sovereignty in Africa.

South Africa and India have also proposed a temporary waiver of a global intellectual property agreement at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for these tools. As the world has realized the sheer barrier these rules pose, the United States, Australia, and more than 100 nations have now pledged their support for a waiver.

Ending the impasse over intellectual property rules will free the world from the cage that is holding it back from a fair and equitable end to the pandemic. We must all work together to salvage the WHO’s target of vaccinating 70 percent of people by mid-2022 with a profound sense of urgency. We must also build within the matrix of public research and development infrastructure a more equitable response to the next global health crisis, based on solidarity and cooperation.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.