As the COVID-19 crisis deepens, government responses are becoming increasingly divergent and nationalistic.What’s being lost amid the mounting chaos is the simple realization that the struggle to control COVID-19 is not as much a race to the finish as it is a tethered mountain ascent; any one country’s failure drags all others down with it.
No doubt all governments are dedicated to meeting their populations’ economic, social, and public health needs; nonetheless this is leading some governments to shun cooperative efforts to develop and share treatments, technologies, and vaccines.
This is not a strategy for success.
Pandemics are no great equalizers. The most significant impacts of this event, as is true in most other major disasters will be incurred in the countries of the Global South where years if not decades of economic development are now being reversed, and hundreds of millions are sliding back into poverty.
While this may seem like “someone else’s problem” to those in wealthy countries, failing to recognize the interconnectedness of the global community carries a significant cost.
We could have been more prepared for our current situation if governments and societies had not dismissed previous infectious diseases—MERS, SARS, Ebola, Nipah–as isolated regional events. Global tragedy was narrowly averted in these past outbreaks, yet we failed to acknowledge how deeply we are linked in health. The speed and ease with which COVID-19 crossed borders provides a clear reminder that geography is of no consequence to infectious disease.
We don’t know how long this pandemic will last, but we do know that eradication will be challenging given COVID-19’s high person-to-person transmissibility. If past pandemics are any lesson, including the much referenced 1918 Spanish Flu, these initial first waves are likely to be followed by others. Discovery of a vaccine or effective treatment is regularly discussed as a means for short-circuiting transmission and perhaps enabling a more rapid end to the crisis, but the reality is not so simple.
Vaccinating millions of people could take years to carry out. Until that failsafe prevention or cure exists, incremental easing and restricting of societies is the best option for risk-based control. Opening up a society entirely risks a full-blown resurgence, while strict lockdowns are untenable given the economic and social implications.
Even if past infection grants lasting immunity, studies have found most communities are well below levels where ‘herd immunity’ exists. The risk of reintroduction in any country, state, or community is extreme, and global connectivity means an outbreak in one part of the world poses a threat to every other. It is doubtful that any one country is equipped to manage every step of the vaccination process, let alone achieve full population coverage. And even then, the immunity protections provided by one country’s vaccination efforts would be rendered less effective were the virus to continue to circulate in other countries.
High income nations must therefore recognize that a protracted global crisis will bring significant national security implications, which cannot be addressed without taking into consideration the safety of all global citizens.
One development priority should be the transfer of technologies – from contact tracing and sanitation practices to prevention and cure – that will aid in managing the virus worldwide. Costa Rica’s proposed intellectual property pool for COVID-19 related technologies, and the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator, provide examples of how this might be accomplished while recognizing and allowing for concerns surrounding intellectual property rights.
Just as bilateral development assistance cannot be divorced from domestic policy objectives, the equitable transfer of and access to COVID-19 treatments and vaccines has mutually reinforcing advantages for donors and recipients alike.
Development banks also play a central role in enabling and advocating for arrangements that S&T innovators find worthwhile, including the establishment of dedicated frameworks.
Public-private partnerships will also help to support R&D while ensuring access to the products. For example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could support a mechanism capable of maximizing the distribution of breakthrough technologies among member nations, leveraging bilateral support systems (e.g., TechNet or COVID-NET).
Without such efforts, this pandemic’s impacts will increasingly come to represent a legacy of divergent privilege and poverty. But it need not be so. There exists an opportunity to prove that the simple act of lending a helping hand is not just an altruistic, moral path, it is also the only one that will lead us all towards our common goal—a successfully tethered ascent of the mountain that is COVID-19.