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OP-ED: Vaccine, pandemic, hope, and despair

  • Published at 08:01 pm April 4th, 2021
covid-19 vaccine
File photo of a man reacts as he receives a dose of the Covishield vaccine Reuters

The coronavirus may have won round one, but the fight is not over yet

As the vaccine began to roll out in late 2020, a glimmer of hope flickered at the end of the tunnel of hopelessness. Yet, soon after the moment of optimism, two unfortunate developments dimmed this hope once again.

A second -- and in some cases, a third -- wave of the pandemic due to new variants of the virus (some locally mutated and some imported from other parts of the world) dampened the prospect of an early end to the crisis. The stalemate in the distribution of the vaccine and questioning the safety, let alone efficacy, of some of the vaccines, revealed deeper politics of governance at the global as well as at the local levels.

The Guardian sounded an alarm as the majority of the poor countries -- 92 in total -- are now dependent on India, which has its own needs to meet. Serum Institute, the world’s largest vaccine producer, is under contract to produce the Oxford vaccine for the world’s poor.

The poor countries of the world are unable to buy vaccines from the large pharmaceutical companies. Maybe it is time to unlock intellectual property and patent laws so as to allow the developing world to manufacture a generic vaccine for the poor. Bangladesh has the capability of producing such a vaccine, as does South Africa.

A number of countries -- both market-based liberal democracies in Europe and coordinated capitalist societies -- were on the backfoot as the crisis seemed to be intractable.

At the time of writing, Italy is under a 3-day hard lockdown, France is in a 4-week lockdown, while England is doing better and seems to have left behind the worst.

Economic growth in a small number of Asian countries, a continued slump in Europe, and the recent uptick in employment in the US reveal uneven effects of the pandemic.

It is clear that China, despite some propaganda, managed the crisis better than most of the countries of the world through a combination of hammer and dance (surely, more hammer at the early stage than dance).

A group of economists at Toulouse School of Economics in France in mid-May of 2020 introduced these useful metaphors in recommending a nuanced response to the pandemic crisis, addressing both the economic and health policy objectives simultaneously.

Change of administration in the US changed the distribution of vaccines from a Trumpian dismal and denial approach to reach new goals of 200 million vaccines in the first 100 days under President Biden.

The pandemic, the great disruptor of the century, has won round 1, and round 2 is now on.

While many writers focused on the role of government, as we did in our forthcoming publication, Covid-19 and Governance (Nederveen Pieterse, Lim, and Khondker, Routledge, 2021), which I hope will receive its fair share of attention, the missing part in our book as in several others is the quality of society.

Governance does not occur in a vacuum. The quality of society is a vexing question. Are we talking about the institutions of society or the quality of the people living in a society?

The answer is both. However, the behaviour and actions of the people are as important a variable as any other. Few writers have tackled this aspect. One exception is Sheila Jasanoff of Harvard.

In a joint study produced by Harvard and Cornell, a number of writers examined the Covid-19 response across 18 countries. In terms of response and the effectiveness of responses, countries have been classified as control, consensus, and chaos countries.

China is a control country, so is Singapore. Germany approximates a consensus country. Brazil, Italy, the US, and India are chaos countries. To which I will add, the US was clearly a chaos country under Trump, and now under Biden is trying to come out of that label.

Jasanoff comes from a science and society background. How scientific is the culture of a given society? How strong, if at all, is public reasoning in that society? It boils down to how gullible the people are to alternative assumptions.

By alternative assumptions, I refer to non-scientific or pseudoscientific beliefs. These beliefs shape our behaviour and actions.

If you believe that you are immune to the virus because you drink the urine of a sacred animal, or you are invincible and protected by God because you are super-religious and thus do not need vaccinations or masks, then you are not following science.

I am not questioning your beliefs or choices but would like to point out -- politely, of course -- that science has no place in your mind. For the serious believers, my plea is: Why not see science as a gift of God? A kind of delegative authority.

Pray and embrace God for mental peace, keep social distance, and follow science to keep the virus at bay.

Habibul Haque Khondker is a sociologist.

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