We fret over masks, but Covid’s global outlook is terrifying

·3-min read
 (Evening Standard)
(Evening Standard)

Long Covid, it turns out, is a social phenomenon as well as a medical condition. Even as new daily cases continue — for now — to decline, the questions posed and confusions spawned by the virus are proliferating.

Yesterday, the proposed amber watch list for travel destinations at risk of moving into the red category was ditched after a tense Cabinet showdown. Meanwhile, we await details of the vaccine booster plans to be launched next month, even before the completion of the original drive to administer two doses to all adults over 18.

The Prime Minister urges us to “remain very cautious” — while Rishi Sunak, in contrast, encourages young people to get back to the office to forge the “strong relationships” that can benefit their careers. We fuss over masks, over access to clubs and other venues, over empty supermarket shelves.

All this, of course, is natural enough. But the consequence of these arguments is that we are becoming more parochial and introspective at precisely the moment that we should be looking with absolute focus at the bigger picture. And the big picture is bleak.

In the unvaccinated parts of the world, Covid continues its lethal march to brutal effect — especially in South America, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia. In many countries, the principal dilemma is not whether to wear a mask or where to go on holiday, but how to allocate minimal oxygen supplies and a shortage of crematoria for the dead.

It is hard to exaggerate the urgency of the task. According to the World Health Organisation, 85 per cent of people in low and lower-middle income countries — 3.5 billion of them — have yet to receive a single jab.

This is why Tortoise Media, the news platform where I am an editor, has launched #TheArmsRace campaign to build a coalition of citizens, businesses, and governments to secure 10 billion doses for 2022. The Evening Standard’s counterpart Vaccine for the World campaign, which is focusing on the roll-out of jabs in six African countries and the work of London scientists, is exactly the sort of initiative that is needed, too.

The moral case for such action is straightforward: unless the pace of vaccination in poorer nations is stepped up dramatically, there will be a humanitarian catastrophe. Bear in mind too that these are preventable deaths.

There is also a strong argument from self-interest to get jabs into arms all over the planet. Covid does not care about borders and the variants that are evolving in unvaccinated nations will, sooner rather than later, end up on these shores.

As Delta sweeps the world, new mutations continue to pop up. Research into the Lambda variant, now raging through South America, suggests that it may combine the enhanced transmissibility of Delta with the vaccine resistance of Beta. We must hope that is not so.

The problem is not, as is sometimes claimed, vaccine supply. The richer nations have ordered enough jabs to vaccinate their populations many times over: it is time to share the spare.

What is lacking is the global leadership to make this happen: to prioritise territories where vaccines are most immediately needed and to expedite the often complex logistics of dose delivery.

The G7 conspicuously shirked this responsibility at its Carbis Bay summit in June. The response of the G20 has been sluggish, too. President Biden is set to host a special virtual summit on the pandemic during the UN General Assembly next month. But there is no sign to date that the international community is seriously willing to treat the crisis of vaccine inequality as the global emergency that it is.

The price of inaction is absolutely clear. Many millions will die, avoidably so. And deadlier variants will come back to bite us hard in the vaccinated world. There is still time to get the jabs where they are needed, which is everywhere. But right now we are sleepwalking towards disaster.

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