The most important question is: How can we avoid another pandemic?...
In the pandemic raging since early 2020, what people have mostly debated is the question of lockdowns. On this matter I cannot discern any conclusive answers. Even if I am an economic liberal, I admit the case for restricting the freedom of one to infect others, at the same time as I find it necessary to weigh the costs of lockdowns against their presumed benefits. Lives are lost either way, and usually those who demand lockdowns are officials in secure positions themselves: lockdowns have negligible impact on their lives. I only hope that the damage done to others will be of little long-term significance.
There are other conclusions to be drawn from the pandemic, with more certainty. I observe three main lessons. The first is about the stifling effect which dictatorship has on the search for truth. It is still not known wherefrom the corona virus originated in Wuhan, perhaps a wet market, as the Chinese Communist Party claims, or a laboratory, more specifically the Wuhan Institute of Virology. From the beginning, the Chinese Communist Party has tried to limit and control information about the disease. Recall Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan opthalmologist condemned as a ‘rumour monger’ and admonished by the Chinese authorities for sharing with colleagues at the end of December 2019 an alarming report about a new deadly virus. He died in February 2020 after having been infected by the virus. Surprisingly, WHO, the World Health Organisation, went along with the Chinese government, stating on 14 January 2020 that ‘it is very clear right now that we have no sustained human-to-human transmission’. Or perhaps not-so-surprisingly: The WHO director-general, an Ethiopian Marxist, was backed by the Chinese government for his job. Like many other international organisations, WHO has been massively infiltrated by China which is, we must bear in mind, a one-party state, tolerating no dissent.
Of course, WHO eventually had to admit that Covid-19 was a contagious and indeed deadly disease. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has been busy taking down online databases and shutting up scientists. But if such a pandemic is not to be repeated, we have to know its origin, and we can only discover it through science, the unfettered search for truth. As British best-selling science writer Dr. Matt Ridley writes: ‘The WHO has wasted a year failing to investigate the origin of the virus properly, which has reduced the chances that we will ever know how this pandemic began and therefore increased the probability of another one.’
The second lesson is about the inefficacy of huge, non-transparent, nameless bureaucracies. The bitter fact is that the European Union has failed to deal with the pandemic. Three forceful and energetic political leaders outside the EU, Donald Trump in the United States, Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, realised early on how crucial it was to encourage the development and production of vaccines, and they did all they could to further this. The result was that vaccination in their countries eventually proceeded at a much faster rate than in the EU. As I write, more than 130 million jabs have been given in the United States, in contrast to 60 million in the EU, even if the EU population exceeds that of the US by more than 100 million.
However, even if large bureaucracies may be slow in performing their proper tasks, they are quick to defend themselves when they feel threatened. A failure requires a scapegoat, and the EU designated the AstraZeneca vaccine, developed by British scientists, for that role. EU leaders have publicly thrown doubt on the safety of the vaccine, especially for the elderly, while they have paradoxically tried to block the export of this supposedly dangerous preparation to countries outside the EU. Their baseless speculations (never so classified on social media unlike for example some baseless claims about the US presidential elections) predictably led to widespread reluctance in Europe to accept the vaccine. The result was that huge supplies went unused and were wasted. The public was even treated to the extraordinary spectacle of elite forces of the Italian police, on the initiative of the European Commission, raiding a factory near Rome in the mistaken belief that they would find a secret stockpile of vaccines there destined for the United Kingdom.
The third lesson is about the creativity and responsiveness of capitalism. It was what was left of communism in China that turned a local epidemic into a worldwide pandemic, and it is capitalism which is producing a solution. True enough, governments have provided a lot of money for the vaccines available in the West. But they were customers, not producers. They did not develop the vaccines. It so happens that three of the four licensed vaccines in Europe were created by private companies—BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson jabs—while the fourth one, from AstraZeneca, came out of a university—indeed my alma mater—but is being marketed by a large pharmaceutical company.
Of course vaccine nationalism is as misguided as was financial nationalism during the credit crunch thirteen years ago. For example, the Pfizer vaccine requires 280 materials which are provided by 86 suppliers from 19 countries around the world. Its production is a spectacular example of what can be achieved by the international division of labour. But politicians will rarely go against what they perceive to be the will of their voters, who do not always include the earnest, well-meaning and eloquent people at international conferences or at university seminars. But we in Europe know from our history that there is both good and bad nationalism. Good nationalism means a commitment to preserve and develop our own cultural heritage, whereas bad nationalism adopts an aggressive stance towards other nations. Vaccine nationalism is of the bad sort. It may be in the short-term interest of some politicians and bureaucrats in Brussels. It is however not only in the long-term interest of Western nations to maintain free trade and friendly relations between themselves: it may also be crucial to its very survival as a new cold war is, regrettably, looming against China.