The headline of a CBS news article a fortnight ago was: “Omicron Covid-19 variant was in Europe before South African scientists detected and flagged it to the world.”
This report was a few days after a number of countries beyond sub-Saharan Africa suspended flights from southern Africa. There was no corresponding news of flights bans from European countries and the world was slow to express gratitude to scientists in South Africa, who had managed to discover the new Omicron variant that is worrying so many worldwide. Some Asian countries eventually banned travel from European countries, where Omicron was discovered. But the predominant reaction worldwide was to suspend travel from South Africa.
When it comes to crises, let’s look at what the world might have learnt in the past two years. The pandemic was quickly identified as a global health problem. It became clear that no country could isolate itself from Covid-19. The very nature of the “global village” – that is, the world we inhabit, and the inter-connectedness of our economies – makes it impossible. But the world may have learnt something else as well, that the idea of a “global village” can be a myth, one that some liberals might be keen to promote as evidence that inequalities in the world are being flattened but the evidence points to inequalities of the world not being flattened.
In any village in any traditional society, it is unthinkable that one household dying from disease would be left to sort it out on their own, while the rest of the village went about its business, or the rest of the house battened down its doors and windows. Rather, everyone would and should band together to fight the ailment as a common threat.It is not just Omicron the world has to worry about. There are likely to be more variants in the future
In this case, the western world didn’t do that. Vaccines were not first sent to the populations most vulnerable to Covid-19. They were sent to those populations whose governments could afford to buy them first, or those governments who planned in advance to receive them while others didn’t have the capacity.
As a result, some countries are encouraging their populations to get third doses of vaccines or booster shots while many countries in the world are struggling to get even one dose to the majority of their populations because vaccines are less available to them or the health system is incapable of widespread delivery of vaccines.
This is entirely counter-productive. Pandemics do not end with one part of the world getting itself vaccinated; not in the 21st century, because we are that interconnected. In today’s age, pandemics can only end when we are all protected, which is when the possibility of variations and mutations is lessened.
If, however, we do not take care of that neighbour in our “global village”, the likelihood of new variants developing increases. Rather than recognise this and waive patents for vaccine production, for example – so that more people can gain access to vaccines more quickly – companies and countries that produce the vaccines refuse to do so.
We all have responsibilities in this regard. The “anti-vax” movement across the world has variants of its own. In many countries, where there is high access to vaccines, such as the US or the UK, the scourge of “fake-news” pertaining to vaccines and Covid-19 has posed a serious threat. In this regard, countries must let science be the bedrock of policies in public health. Governments also have an onus to push back against disinformation that make such policies difficult to uphold.
It is not just Omicron the world has to worry about. There are likely to be more variants in the future. And beyond Covid-19, there could be other health crises as well, including the looming climate crisis. None of these are local, national, or regional problems and they all require international solutions.
In an interconnected world, we have two choices. One is to revert to a pre-modern existence, where what happens in, say, Australia might not affect what happens in, for example, America. The other choice is to recognise that in an interconnected world, we have no option except to acknowledge that our destinies are wound together, and global problems – particularly global health crises – require global solutions. Otherwise, the global response to the Covid-19 pandemic thus far will be only the first example of worse things to come.
Dr HA Hellyer, a Carnegie Endowment scholar, is a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and Cambridge University