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The technocrats are failing the vaccine test

Are populist leaders better at vaccine roll-outs? If so, that should fill us with trepidation about post-pandemic politics

Remember when the pandemic spelled doom for populism and nationalism? From Boris Johnson’s brief flirtation with herd immunity in March 2020, through Donald Trump’s touting of miracle cures such as hydroxychloroquine, to Jair Bolsonaro calling Covid-19 a “little flu”, the virus served as a reality check on the divisive and ineffective leadership of populists worldwide.

Moreover, as a prime example of a global public good, it seemed inevitable that the fight against the disease would rehabilitate multilateralism and global cooperation at the expense of economic nationalism and the beggar-thy-neighbour policies embraced by nationalist leaders.

Both of those propositions look far less attractive today. Among Western democracies, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel and Johnson’s UK lead the charts in vaccination rates with 51.7 and 13.4 doses administered per 100 people respectively. They are followed by the post-Trump United States (9.3 doses), where the previous administration’s policies were crucial in developing the new generation of mRNA-based vaccines in record time.

Meanwhile, Germany, where Angela Merkel’s leadership was once praised as key in keeping the virus at bay, has administered 2.8 doses per 100 people. Jacinda Ardern’s New Zealand, celebrated as another model worth emulating, will not start vaccinating until the second quarter of 2021, and South Korea is waiting until late February.

In spite of the urgency of the situation, there has been little mutual support for vaccine approvals

And while cooperation among scientists, research institutions and pharmaceutical businesses around the globe has been integral to the vaccine’s development, the more conventional forms of multilateralism have little to show for their work. In spite of the urgency of the situation, there has been little mutual recognition and support for vaccine approvals by regulators. Some European politicians dismissed the approval of the Pfizer vaccine in the UK as hasty, only for the European Medicines Agency to reach the same conclusion three weeks later. Widely deployed in the UK, the AstraZeneca vaccine has only just been approved by the EMA and remains under scrutiny from the US Food and Drug Administration.

Worse yet, the European Union’s effort at joint procurement and distribution of the vaccine is proving to be a disaster – not auspicious for a project of political integration that derives much of its legitimacy from its dispassionate, technocratic competence. The EU concluded its contracts with Moderna and Pfizer late and turned down offers of additional doses from the two companies. The bloc was also three months behind the UK in striking a deal with AstraZeneca which, together with technical difficulties, will result in delivery delays. Instead of the 80 million doses anticipated by March, the company will only be able to provide the EU with up to 31 million doses.

The EU’s stand-off with Astra Zeneca likely prompted German politicians to spread rumors of the vaccine’s lack effectiveness among the population above 65, repeated on Friday by France’s President Emmanuel Macron – a gift to the continent’s vibrant anti-vaccine movement.

More importantly, the EU responded to the shortage by imposing on Friday what was essentially an export ban on vaccines manufactured in the EU. The sudden move not only put at risk the Brexit deal which envisaged that any future changes to Northern Irish border regime would be done only in a coordinated orderly regime, but it manifested precisely the kind of economic nationalism that the European project was meant to curb. Worse yet, if the goal is to ramp up the production and distribution of the vaccine, the regime uncertainty introduced by the EU’s decision risks achieving the exact opposite – it risks incentivizing pharmaceutical companies to restructure their production so as to avoid any export restrictions.

Successful vaccination programmes are the only lasting fix to the pandemic

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic has now stopped administering first doses for the next two weeks, using the remaining supply for second doses – same as the regional government of Madrid in Spain. In Italy, CNN reports, “over-80s would be vaccinated four weeks later than previously planned.”

Under such circumstances, it becomes difficult to blame Hungary’s Viktor Orbán for buying two million doses of Russia’s Sputnik-V and 5 million doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine. Unless the EU steps up, and if the Russian and Chinese vaccines are safe and effective (big “ifs,” arguably), Orbán might be able to claim a victory over the virus before the rest of the EU and spend his entire campaign ahead of the 2022 election lambasting the bloc’s inept bureaucracy – not without a reason.

None of this is good news. Many a populist leader, including Orbán, have behaved abominably during the pandemic and deserve their comeuppance. It would also be foolish to conclude that international cooperation is unnecessary since it has clearly failed Europe at this critical moment.

However, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Lockdowns, mask mandates, travel bans, and track and trace regimes are all band-aid solutions. Only successful and near-universal vaccination programmes are a lasting fix to the nightmare that the world has lived in since early last year. From the moment it was apparent a vaccine was possible, its development, production at scale, and universal distribution should have been the priority of every policymaker in every country on the planet – dwarfing any other policy question in its urgency and importance.

To see so many seemingly competent leaders and institutions fail that simple test – and unwittingly prolong the human and economic tragedy of the pandemic – should fill us with trepidation about the kind of politics the Western world is likely to see after the pandemic. My guess: it won’t be pretty.

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