The coronavirus pandemic is still raging across the globe despite our hope last year that it would be brought under control by around the end of summer 2021.
Waves of infections have swarmed across countries one after another, and the emergence of highly transmissible variant strains and their accelerating spread have outpaced vaccine supplies. The accumulated number of COVID-19 infections worldwide has topped 200 million, and the disease has claimed some 4.4 million lives.
In India, COVID-19 fatalities surged this spring, to the point that the deaths overwhelmed the capacity of crematories. Flames of burning victims’ bodies became part of the cityscape.
In Vietnam, where the coronavirus had once been contained, the surging numbers of severely ill COVID-19 patients have put a strain on the medical system, and patients have spilled over into “field hospitals” in urban areas.
Down under, Australia and New Zealand have once again resorted to lockdowns, leaving streets deserted.
In the United States and France, protests against authorities’ moves to make vaccinations mandatory have repeatedly erupted.
These are all true pictures of the world we face today.
While our battle against COVID-19 looks likely to drag on, we are compelled to question if the international community is prepared to take on the prolonged struggle.
At the annual general assembly of the World Health Organization in May, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus revealed shocking data on a “vaccination divide.”
“The ongoing vaccine crisis is a scandalous inequity that is perpetuating the pandemic. More than 75% of all vaccines have been administered in just 10 countries,” Tedros said.
According to a private U.S. research firm, the percentage of people who had received the first round of shots by mid-July reached 50% in high-income countries such as those in Europe and the United States. However, the figure dropped to just 1% in low-income nations in Africa and other regions.
In Europe and the U.S., there are moves to give booster shots to people who have completed double shots to fight off mutant strains. In the meanwhile, people in poverty in Africa have to work despite infection risks.
The uneven distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is accelerating bipolarization of the global economy. While the economies of vaccine-affluent countries are on course for recovery, nations in short of vaccine supplies are struggling to pull out of stagnation.
According to the United Nations, famine is rapidly spreading across Africa. If the situation is left unaddressed, the global economic gap could only widen.
The prolonged pandemic has also cast a shadow over political landscapes worldwide. Of particular concern are moves to suppress free speech in the media.
According to an international nongovernmental organization, many countries in the Middle East and Southeast Asia have beefed up regulations on the press and social media. They include a ban on interviewing distressed residents in areas under coronavirus curfews, and imposing punishments for the publication of news and remarks critical of the government.
The primary mission of political leaders is to protect the lives and safety of the people. And yet, if they prioritize saving their own skins, they will only end up losing public trust, finding themselves unable to carry out effective virus measures.
Such tactics of controlling information by capitalizing on the pandemic can be considered a sign of authoritarianism, and an alarming setback for democracy.
The question here is what we can do to equally protect people’s lives without descending into nationalistic ideologies. Above all else, the international community must become aware once again that the coronavirus crisis is a global threat.
Virus countermeasures such as avoiding crowds, curbing the flow of people and inoculating citizens are common across borders. For these steps to be effectively implemented on a global scale, it is imperative to forge international cooperation.
In particular, the U.S. and China have significant roles to play. Both are economic superpowers and vaccine producers. They bear a heavy responsibility in supplying vaccines and extending humanitarian assistance.
Nevertheless, tensions between Washington and Beijing are only escalating. The U.S. has declared that it is fighting against China’s autocracy, while China says America’s democracy is deteriorating. The two nations have been engaged in “vaccine diplomacy,” which has taken on the aspect of a turf war.
Certainly, the U.S. and China have every right to ensure universal vaccination of their citizens. We are not here to deny their discretion in calculating diplomatic gains and losses. However, if the “have” nations are unwilling to turn their eyes to the rest of the world, there is no way the pandemic can be brought to an end.
It is about time for those countries to display a cooperative stance with regard to anti-COVID-19 measures. If more vaccine supplies are distributed to international organizations, they can be redirected to vaccine-strapped countries equally.
The crisis the world faces today is not limited to the pandemic. The nuclear arms race among superpowers and rapid climate change pose rather greater risks considering the gravity of their potential consequences.
The current pandemic will be a litmus test for this question: whether the countries around the world will stay mired in nationalism and turn their backs on internationalism, resulting in the entire world being crushed under the crisis, or whether all nations will rise to counter a common threat together and find hope in the future of our planet. If the nations fail to work in concert, the global divide may only deepen.