Members Only | January 5, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
Enough already! Spend the money to vaccinate the world
The United States can’t protect the public health of its residents without protecting the public health of everyone else.
Covid infections are ballooning. Cases were up to 405,000 a day last week— 60 percent higher than January 2020, the previous high.
Deaths and hospitalizations have not yet kept pace, but there are worrying signs. Hospitalizations in Illinois hit their highest levels yet; covid patients occupy a quarter of all hospital beds. They are 41 percent of intensive care patients. Some counties have 90 percent or more of hospital beds occupied. Other areas are also seeing worrisome surges. Hospitalization of children hit record levels at year’s end.
The US should be doing whatever it takes to vaccinate not just its own population, but the world’s population. Yet politicians and much of public opinion see expenditures as zero-sum charity rather than as a necessary investment in a collective good.
The latest covid crisis is being spurred by the omicron variant, which may be the fastest spreading virus in history, according to experts. It was first detected in South Africa, thanks to its rigorous testing, but we don’t know where it originated. We do know that variants are inevitable during pandemics. Viruses mutate over time and they mutate more quickly when they are circulating unchecked.
This means everyone has an interest in reducing spread everywhere. Eradicating it within national boundaries is insufficient when variants can develop anywhere. The US should be doing whatever it takes to vaccinate not just its own population, but the world’s population. Yet politicians and much of public opinion see expenditures as zero-sum charity rather than as a necessary investment in a collective good.
The US has spent about $1.6 billion to distribute vaccines globally as of the end of 2021. Current American vaccine distribution plans will probably require about $7 billion to implement. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, it will require about $50 billion to bring the vaccine to everyone in the world and get immunization up to levels that will control the virus globally.
Fifty billion dollars sounds like a lot of money. But it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the $4.5 trillion the US has already spent on aid during the pandemic. Direct payments to individuals alone totaled $867 billion. Small business payments totaled $968 billion.
The pandemic has done huge amounts of damage itself. More than 800,000 people have already died in the US alone. In the first half of 2020, the US economy lost $1.9 trillion, the steepest GDP decline since World War II. The economy has recovered strongly, but another spike threatens those gains. New waves of covid can lead to new economic disasters. Tourism alone is seeing a massive decline because of omicron. Travel agents are seeing 30-50 percent cancellations for January right now.
Even if you put aside the massive death toll (and you shouldn’t put aside the massive death toll!), the US should be investing much, much more in global vaccination as a straightforward cost-saving measure. The more people get vaccinated globally, the lower the threat of deadly variants, the less likely we experience more trillion dollar disruptions.
The US appropriated $768 billion in its last defense bill. In comparison, $50 billion is a tiny investment to protect us from the most serious international threat at least since World War II. No one country would need to spend even that much if all the affluent countries kicked in.
Wealthy countries don’t seem to see the math, though. They have tended to stockpile resources. Canada has enough vaccines to vaccinate its population 9.6 times over. Meanwhile, poor countries have only vaccinated about 8 percent. African nations have a less than 5 percent vaccination rate. Biden has proposed a patent waiver allowing poor countries to begin producing vaccines cheaply, but European nations have balked. And even though omicron is busily demonstrating the dangers of leaving massive global gaps in vaccine coverage, exponentially scaling up global vaccine aid isn’t on the table.
That’s not surprising, unfortunately. The US (and not just the US) tends to frame government spending as illegitimate giveaways rather than as investments in a common future. That was Democratic West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s reasoning when he helped block the Build Back Better Act last month. BBB would have extended the child tax credit, which kept 3 million children out of poverty. Manchin, though, reportedly told colleagues he did not want to extend payments because he worried that parents would spend the money on drugs. He decided real benefits were less important than imaginary fears that someone, somewhere, might get money they shouldn’t.
It’s perhaps even more difficult to create a consensus for global aid when our own domestic pandemic response has been so inadequate. The initial Biden vaccination effort was stunning. But partisan Republican vaccine resistance and racist disparities in access for Black and Hispanic communities has stalled uptake well short of the 75 percent, which would be an absolute minimum for herd immunity.
Instead of helping others to help ourselves, the US and wealthy nations have chosen to hurt others even if it means burying ourselves in death and misery. If we’re not willing to do what it takes to end covid everywhere, it’s hard to see how our nightmare can end.
Testing is also inadequate and expensive, and we don’t have enough N95 masks. If the US can’t even meet the public health needs of its own population, wouldn’t it be irresponsible to go spending billions on the public health of people on the other side of the globe?
Thing is, though, there is no virus-proof barrier between the US and the rest of the world. Public health doesn’t, and can’t, stop at arbitrary national borders. US domestic failures are compounded by US international failures. We can’t protect the public health of US residents without protecting the public health of everyone else.
We’ve failed in fighting the global pandemic for the same reasons we’ve failed in fighting the domestic one: short-sightedness, exacerbated by racism, xenophobia and a bone-deep belief that aid is against our self-interest. Instead of helping others to help ourselves, the US and wealthy nations have chosen to hurt others even if it means burying ourselves in death and misery. If we want to end covid, we need to end it everywhere. And if we’re not willing to do what it takes to end it everywhere, it’s hard to see how our current nightmare can end.
Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.