Why can't we tackle Covid and climate heating? Nationalism and stupidity

Even if you think humans are nothing more than a selfish, tribal species who care little for anyone beyond our clans and ourselves, the failure to vaccinate the world remains astonishing. It is not only a moral affront that rich nations are leaving millions to die needless deaths but an assault on our own self-interest.

The International Monetary Fund estimates that the world economy risks losing $4.5tn (£3.3tn) by 2025 if Covid-19 spreads unchecked. Gordon Brown, the World Health Organization’s new ambassador for global health financing, tells me the cost of supplying enough vaccines to inoculate all poor nations is about £70bn.

In countries with rudimentary health services the usual problems of delivery remain, but no one doubts that trillions of dollars could be unlocked by the spending of a sum that is trifling in comparison. Yet the rich world won’t spend. Nor will it act to squash the small risk that the virus will mutate into a variant that can evade vaccines.

Covid has torn up our lives and haunted our dreams. If you live in the UK or US, you are fortunate if you do not know someone who has died from the virus. Yet, when faced with a peril everyone acknowledges, whose consequences are devastating, the world cannot act.

If the response to the pandemic is a guide, the grand promises governments are making to prevent climate catastrophe will come to little. If they cannot take seriously an immediate danger staring them in the face, how will they manage to take sustained and expensive countermeasures against climate change that require sacrifices and commitments over decades?

When I asked Brown to explain the failure, he replied with admirable brevity: “Nationalism and stupidity.”

The nationalism is honeyed over by supposed progressives. Last week, Joe Biden hosted a Covid summit where he announced he would donate an extra 500m vaccines to middle- and low-income countries. He sounded impressive. But so did President Emmanuel Macron in 2020 when he said we should not tolerate “a two-speed world where only the richer can protect themselves”. Every leader in the west has said much the same. Notwithstanding their fine sentiments, less than 2% of the population of low-income countries has received even one dose.

Everyone suspects that rich countries are paying for sweetheart deals with vaccine manufacturers. Officials at the WHO-led Gavi alliance, which is trying to buy vaccines for poor countries, tell me manufacturers won’t say where their orders are in the queue or whether they would consider giving them priority.

Video: Why are the French so sceptical about vaccines? (France 24)

For all the cooing and kind words, promises from Biden and his counterparts cannot be believed. As the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said last week, the triumph of science in producing vaccines had been undone by “lack of political will, selfishness and mistrust”.

What he called the “obscenity” of rich world indifference comes in two parts. First, promised deliveries of vaccines to the poor world have never arrived. Oxford University data analysts found the UK had delivered less than 7% of the vaccines it has promised developing countries. Overall, of the 554m doses promised by the richest nations, only 90.8m, or 16%, had reached their destination. Those that did came in dribs and drabs, making planning vaccination campaigns impossible.

Arguments about whether it is right for rich countries to engage in medically dubious initiatives to vaccinate teenagers or give booster jabs to the vulnerable are almost beside the point. By February 2022, 15bn doses will have been produced: more than enough to vaccinate the world. Governments, however, have allowed neurotic nationalism to turn them into misers who hoard more vaccines than they could possibly need.

The second obscenity lies in the fate of their hidden treasure. Airfinity, a science analytics company, estimates that by the end of 2021, G7 countries may throw away 241m vaccines that have passed their expiry date. Brown describes their destruction as “unconscionable” and says he will send the projections to Biden, Johnson and EU leaders.

The know-nothing spirit that animated the Trump and Brexit movements has survived into the pandemic

It is a cliche of western responses to see the poor world as filled with corrupt and failed states. Imagine what African and Asian news teams could now say about us. Camera crews might film vaccines being crushed into landfill sites, as the reporters intoned that, though it was harsh to admit it, the truth was that childish and irresponsible westerners were so prone to wastefulness they could not be trusted to govern themselves.

Rational self-interest is the best form of selfishness and it is clearly absent today. More common is an embittered parochialism, which begins by not wanting to think about the rest of humanity and ends by hating them. God knows but I had my disagreements with Brown when he was in government. But there is no greater sign of the triumph of stupid nationalism than the replacement of Brown and politicians who could rise to a crisis with the babbling, play-acting, post-Brexit caricatures. They took power by saying that foreigners were trying to swindle honest Brits and cannot now show generosity to the rest of the world.

The knowledge that we will not be safe until everyone is safe has aroused a determination among the worst of nationalists not to be driven by science or bow before multinational institutions. The know-nothing spirit that animated the Trump and Brexit movements has survived into the pandemic. The Trump administration withdrew from the World Health Organization. The Johnson government cut the foreign aid budget in the middle of an emergency when poor countries needed help most and the UK needed the epidemiological protection and economic stimulus that a global effort to contain Covid would bring.

It did so safe in the knowledge that the majority of the public would not care. Since the start of the pandemic, news bulletins have repeated the number of Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths. When the regulators approved vaccines, the numbers of those who had received one and then two jabs were added. But at no point do we hear how many vaccines are going to countries that cannot afford to buy them. Until that changes, there will be no hope of tackling Covid, let alone the catastrophic climate crisis that is rushing towards us like an unstoppable storm.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist

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