Why the World Lost to the Pandemic

Why the World Lost to the Pandemic

Politics and Security Fears Crippled the Collective Response

The day before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the United States crossed a tragic milestone, marking 400,000 deaths from COVID-19. Biden has since cautioned that half a million American lives could be lost by February. It did not have to be this bad. The inconsistency and incompetence of President Donald Trump’s administration compounded the toll of the pandemic, but so did larger forces partly beyond any one government’s control, from politics to protectionism to paranoia. 

In the early days of the epidemic, as the novel coronavirus began jumping borders, countries rushed to institute travel barriers and install protectionist measures, against the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO). Instead of working together to contain the outbreak, major powers quarreled over who should be deemed responsible. Scientific research became subsumed by national interests, and the development and distribution of vaccines—a process experts once hoped would offer a global solution to a global crisis—expanded health disparities. The results of this vaccine apartheid are now apparent: as of January 25, none of the 68.1 million vaccine doses administered globally had been provided in low- or low- to middle-income countries. “The world is on the brink of a catastrophic moral failure,” the WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said last week, referring to the vaccine access gap.