Not all that long ago, we learned that successful capitalism was about the effective balance between supply and demand. The pandemic experience of these past 12 months has added one more classification to that formula that we have frequently overlooked: distribution. In a globalized world, where free trade agreements connected nations across a vast spectrum, the wheels were greased for the rapid movement of goods, unencumbered by overbearing regulations. We took it for granted that what we wished for was readily available.
That world is gone for now, its place interrupted by blocked supply chains, border restrictions and less disposable cash. The most pressing examples are COVID vaccines. The demand is in the billions of people, the supply in the hundreds of millions of doses, and the distribution … well, there’s the rub. The cause for all the confusion is to be found in how rich nations are competing with one another in a fashion similar to a frontier capitalism reminiscent of the past.
It’s a travesty in its own way. The lightning-like development, testing and production of the various vaccines has been unequalled in history and yet the vials remain largely undelivered and unused. This is made even more confounding when we hear that rich nations have over-ordered vaccines by the millions while poor nations like Nigeria, Mexico, Zimbabwe and Pakistan are still awaiting shipments. This is all happening while, according to Duke University research, wealthy nations have already bought up 6.4 billion doses and are sparring over another 3.2 billion about to be produced.
It’s not hard to understand what’s going on here. Voters, fatigued following a year of public health controls, financial downturns, and loss of social mobility, are increasingly demanding that their governments get on with vaccinations so they can get on with their lives. The longer that takes, the more precarious becomes any government’s hold on power.
This has led to some embarrassing situations. America, supposedly the greatest power on earth, has only been able to get a fraction of expected vaccines on-site for distribution. And Canada, always keen to be a world player and voice its support for poorer nations getting the vaccine, has already ordered five times the doses required for its population – a reality made more excruciating when one learns this country has fallen to 20th in the world for vaccines doses administered.
This is no secret we can keep contained. Foreign Affairs wrote last week that while Japan, Australia, and Canada account for less than 1% of the world’s coronavirus cases, the three nations secured more than all of the Caribbean and Latin America combined, which represent 17% of global COVID cases.
Endemic in all this is just how little modern nations truly understood the power of viruses like COVID and how ill-prepared they were to deal effectively with their presence. It was only a year ago the we were alerted to the presence of this invisible force emanating from somewhere in China. Repeatedly warned it could end up in the West, virtually every country was woefully unprepared, despite their touted advanced health systems. The brand of government – Left, Right, Centrist – didn’t really matter; they were outmatched. The exceptions could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Somehow, a blind spot emerged among numerous economists and corporate spokespersons, who claimed that the economy should come first. Nations accepting that advice quickly learned just how expensive a botched pandemic recovery can be.
The International Chamber of Commerce weighed in last week on how ignoring the vaccination needs of poorer nations could have a disastrous economic effect on the West, estimating a loss of $1.5 trillion – $9.5 trillion (US) should the present oversight continue. Even more sobering was their belief that one-half of that loss would be borne by those wealthy nations busily securing an oversupply of vaccines over the dire needs of their poorer cousins.
This is what happens in the inter-connected world created in the past 50 years. While politicians contented themselves with viewing the global financial system like a game of chess, the reality is that it is more like pool, creating a multitude of complications that could never be fully known when the shot was taken. The rich nations created this economic order in order to gain material advantage. To continue in that practice in the midst of a pandemic only shows just how self-serving capitalism can become when the bottom line takes precedence over the health workers on the front line.
If bringing all nations together to deal with the greatest health, social, democratic and economic challenge of a century is the main task before us, we will never get there as long as we permit hubris over a vaccine to eclipse the fate our shared and common humanity.