Omicron and vaccine inequity: How to fix a broken system

Covid-19 led to disconnected efforts of governments, severely damaging global supply chain linkages, now leading to Omicron strain, writes Akshat Singh for South Asia Monitor

Akshat Singh Dec 01, 2021
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COVID-19 vaccines

In a collective déjà vu moment, the world has witnessed the rise of yet another mutation of Covid-19 -- the Omicron strain. While experts don’t know much about the strain, they are certain of one thing. The mutation is a direct result of a high proportion of unvaccinated population and vaccine inequity. 

Experts since the onset of the pandemic fretted over the possibility of rapid mutation due to transmission between large groups of unvaccinated people. After all, the Covid-19 Vaccine Global Access or COVAX was made to prevent the exact predicament we find ourselves in. It would be remiss to give the economically developed countries a free pass. The UK dipped into the COVAX pool of vaccines despite having eight injections per resident.  

 Similarly, Qatar and Bahrain have reportedly paid large swathes of money to acquire vaccines through COVAX. This has come at the expense of poorer nations, including in southern Africa where vaccination rates remain dismal. It is safe to say that further mutations are a direct result of maleficent self-interest and flimsy global coordination. 

Chaos post Covid-19 

 If the mobility and the effects of an incident are not localized, the response to dealing with it can be neither. While the logic stands clear and unchallenged, it is often reduced to bare rhetoric due to socio-political considerations. 

Since the onset of Covid-19, the chaos brought due to the disconnected efforts of governments not only affected the mobility of populations but severely damaged global supply chain linkages, thereby disrupting access to equipment, medicine, technology and personnel. As often happens, the biggest losers were groups (and often countries) already at a disadvantage. Added to the nationalist chauvinism was the outright heavy-handed bullying of bigger states such as China and the US – stories of export diversion for essential medical supplies by these countries became frequent.  

 This facet carried on well after richer countries had met their national demand. Building a stockpile was given more preference than poorer countries having just enough. As has been highlighted, this wasn’t necessarily even in the best interest of richer countries. Why does this happen then? 

What coordination can do? 

 This is a clear example of a no-win (or lose-lose) Nash equilibrium played between the rich countries. Theoretically, this refers to a position in which two competing agents, skeptical of the other agent’s response to given information act out of ‘self-interest’. This two-sided response arising from self-interest lands both parties in a negative scenario. In layman’s terms, if we assume two countries playing a game responding to Covid-19, both could have gained more from cooperating than they did from acting alone.

lose-lose


A lose-lose equilibrium is not necessarily the norm in geopolitics. Countries that have previously come together on issues ranging from space exploration to climate change as well as sustainable development to global financial crises have brought states with often conflicting interests to the table. 

Why did the pandemic not have the same effect? 

One plausible explanation is socio-political consideration. The desire to do ‘something’ rather than nothing could be a major driver for politicians to take actions that might be detrimental. However, this still does not answer why precisely global institutions such as the WHO have substantial influence in decision making- national support for policy driven by global organizations could still save governments from inertia. For this let us look at the nature of existing institutions in global health.  

 Largely institutions can be classified as either public or private. Public institutions include the WHO and the World Bank. They draw their legitimacy from claims of tangential democratic authority. While this is true, it also means that they are afflicted with problems of nation-state diplomacy the same way as the UN is. On the other hand, private institutions such as GAVI, the vaccine alliance, suffer from crises of legitimacy and are often accused of breeding grounds for private sector lobbying. 

Broken system 

 The limitations of both types of institutions are clear: public sector comes with political posturing, inefficient bureaucracies, filibustrering and a wide variance in national objectives of member states. Private players suffer from a crisis of legitimacy and are susceptible to being unduly influenced by money power. 

We know that the system is broken; the question is how do we fix it? 

Firstly, there is a problem with the non-alignment of objectives. Secondly, we can see that the mechanism for coordination is weak. 

Non-alignment of objectives, once looked at through the perspective of national leaders using that to leverage an advantageous position in the domestic scenario makes sense. While it is difficult to bring a multitude of objectives in line, setting a common agenda might be effective. Former governor of the Bank of Mexico, Dr. Guillermo Ortiz, proposes an elegant solution when dealing with a similar problem: the global financial crisis.  

 He proposed the creation of a Mutual Assessment Process (MAP) to assure that the agenda set by a group of countries is followed through. The MAP includes quantitative metrics and measurable goals along with a bipartisan committee to enforce the same. Defaulters incur a charge as best performers are given incentives. The principle is a fairly simple ‘sticks and carrots’ idea but its application is vast. 

To solve the problem of coordination, crisis command structures focusing on specific areas of concern need to be set up. While national centers can work in conjunction with each other, global centers can be used to lay out a minimum common program and assist the countries in implementing it. Combining this with financial rewards can offer a lucrative opportunity for the countries to participate. 

Overhaul needed 

 All in all, there is a need for institutions that bring in an incentive-based system for countries to participate while also maintaining sufficient strength for enforcement. This is definitely a fine balance and would require a significant overhaul of both our understanding and the institutional architecture of global multilateral organizations. This overhaul, however, is a necessity of time. Otherwise, inequity in the form of public health hazards or climate change will pose debilitating challenges for humanity.

(The writer is an economics graduate from Columbia University working as a policy analyst in New York. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached on akshat.singh@spsindia.in

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