Three years ago today, we still had no clue about the great frightening event that would come to abruptly interrupt the dynamic of globalization and leave its mark on history, with effects beyond all imagination—not only in terms of health, but also with disruptive effects in the psychological-existential, social and economic spheres. A Chernobyl in the field of health, as it has been called. So many things have happened in these two years poised on the edge of a knife. Some of them have been positive beyond all expectations, such as the rapid development of vaccines and, more recently, of new treatments against Covid.
Never before has a scientific effort of this magnitude taken place: 23 different vaccines approved in one year worldwide, and hundreds more in development. It has been estimated that this incredible breakthrough has saved the lives of 750,000 people in Europe and the U.S. alone. However, much more has gone wrong—terribly wrong. Covid has defined 2021, a year that will go down in history for the many commissions, panels, and summits which at least declared their intention to learn the lessons of this pandemic, so as not to find ourselves in the same situation next time—because there will certainly be next times.
More commissions are on the horizon: the international community has decided—in a recent ad hoc meeting of the World Health Organization (WHO)—to start the negotiation of a new pandemic treaty. It’s almost as if the pandemic was an acceptable new status quo of the world, the ungainly shape of a new order of things, and not the result of an epochal failure of vision and governance on a global scale. But on the eve of the third year of Covid-19, there are important lessons to highlight.
The first is that acting now is critical, even at the cost of overreaction. Between January and February 2020, for reasons hard to explain, the world did not understand that the unknown virus that broke out in Wuhan would not remain confined to China. All it took was a few weeks for the new pathogen—which came with ample notice—to spill out into other countries. It is true that other coronaviruses, such as SARS in 2003 and MERS in 2012, had not triggered pandemics before. It is also true that health authorities pay a high price for sounding the alarm for emergencies that don’t turn out to be such: the WHO was pilloried by the European Parliament in 2009 for having declared the H1N1 influenza pandemic, an event which didn’t have particularly serious effects.
The whole world knows that the guiding principle of any health emergency response is to prepare for the worst, with adequate investment and staff training. But this is rarely the case. The choice, which we have seen many times in the past two years, to wait for the evolution of the virus to become fully visible before taking the necessary measures to alter its trajectory, is in fact a decision to make the virus much more dangerous, and to open the way to the pandemic.
The second lesson is that politics continues to have the upper hand in public health. In the two years of the pandemic, we have seen it all. How many political leaders have put the lives of their citizens at risk by exploiting the crisis, downplaying it, or spewing outright lies, just because the truth about Covid-19 might have hurt their political fortunes? In Europe, government leaders saw the pandemic as an opportunity for a national social clean-up that would benefit state coffers. In many parts of the world, emergency measures have been used by autocrats to “clean house” and get rid of political opponents, activists and journalists, or to impose regimes of ungainly (in)security. In Brazil, the denialist President Bolsonaro, emulating the mindless Trump, allowed the virus to run unchecked in a country with much inequality and with insufficient health facilities to meet the needs of the population.
As if that were not enough, Bolsonaro dismissed three health ministers and abandoned entire indigenous communities in the Amazon regions to their fate. Will there be a judge in Brasilia or at the Hague who will be able to indict the crimes of this president, who, heedless of the 600,000 dead, is fighting for re-election in October? What we know with scientific certainty is that if the virus had broken out in the United States instead of Wuhan, the consequences would have been much worse, whatever Federico Rampini might say with his anti-Chinese fervor. Despite 824,000 deaths, vaccination programs in the U.S. remain shrouded in ideological fog, and even wearing a mask is a marker of political identification, with such polarization so as to leave one breathless, even more than the virus itself.
In the extreme, and perhaps terminal, phase of financial capitalism, dominated by the “obsessive search for ever new fields of social life, human existence and nature to be transformed as quickly as possible into money,” to quote Luciano Gallino, geopolitical cynicism is in charge even in matters of global health. The international community has resigned itself to new variants in order to avoid giving in on the vexing issue of the suspension of intellectual property rights in times of emergency. We have lost a year, and history will judge us harshly. The vaccine inequality that has marred 2021 will not be remedied in 2022 if a small core of governments continue to be receptive to the interests of multinational drug companies and indifferent to the right to health. If we don’t change course, no pandemic treaty will hold water.