Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Picture: REUTERS
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Picture: REUTERS

Future historians may possibly see 2016 as when it started. Some may look back to the middle of 2007, when the collapse of a couple of hedge funds linked to sub-prime events would spark the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

The great recession and the era of austerity that followed in much of the developed world did much to undermine faith in a globalised world, paving the way for the age of populism that brought about Brexit in the UK in 2016 and, later that year, Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election on an isolationist “America First” ticket.

While much has been written about the coronavirus outbreak and the decoupling of economies, which essentially means a reversal of the trend that tied markets closer together and facilitated the increasingly free movement of people, that process was already in full steam by 2020.

In that sense, Covid-19 couldn’t have come at a worse time and the instinct towards nationalism rather than solidarity, or even enlightened self-interest, threatens the search for a solution. It has reinforced the instinct for countries to take care of themselves first, a process that always leaves the poorer countries behind.

This was seen before with devastating  consequences in the fight for access to revolutionary HIV/Aids drugs that turned carrying the virus from a certain death sentence to a chronic disease that can be managed. Poorer countries that had the most need had to wait years for access, meaning millions of lives were needlessly lost.

Helen Rees, co-director of the Wits African Local Initiative for Vaccinology Expertise and an advisory board member of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, has rightly made the point that hoarding of the vaccine for the H1N1 flu pandemic a decade ago by the rich meant SA only got access months after the outbreak had peaked.

So while there is excitement about the potential speed with which a Covid-19 vaccine can be developed, the old question about equitable access will persist.

“As we accelerate the science, solidarity is needed to provide a joint solution to the pandemic,” World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said this week as he urged countries to join a pact, called Covax, that aims to ensure an equitable distribution of more than 2-billion doses by the middle of 2021. So far only about a tenth of the $100bn the WHO says is needed has been raised.

While the argument for joint action is compelling, governments that have been seen to have mismanaged the outbreak, such as the US, might find it more politically advantageous, at least in the short term, to go their own way. Back in March, that country was reported to have offered “large sums of money” for exclusive access to a vaccine being developed in Germany.

Others who might still care about the idea of at least being seen as global leaders, such as the UK after Brexit, or even Russia if their vaccine breakthrough turns out to be of substance, might find that sharing with others is to their long-term benefit.

But that cannot be a substitute for a collaborative approach that ensures a vaccine is distributed as fairly as possible. Health minister Zweli Mkhize’s spokesperson said this week SA was willing to commit to Covax. We need to not just sign up as soon as possible, but to lobby others to do the same.

Covid’s transformation from a mysterious disease in a region of China that most of us hadn’t heard of in December, to a pandemic that floored the global economy just four months later, has unequivocally shown that the disease knows no national boundaries.

If we can’t ensure that everyone is safe, then ultimately nobody will be safe. And, who knows, this could be the opportunity for the world to push back against nationalism and isolationism and again embrace the increased interconnectedness that did much to improve the general welfare of populations across the world. 

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