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The ultimate boast of democracy is that societies do best when people take responsibility for their lives. Covid-19 has put this theory to the test. Every few months, the West bursts the proverbial champagne to celebrate the end of the pandemic. Hangovers are worse for their predictability. The fact that Western democracies are rarely able to think more than a step ahead does not bode well for their ability to tackle global warming – or to plan for the next pandemic.
Instant gratification is a trait commonly associated with children. In the 1960s, an academic at Stanford University devised the famous marshmallow test that rewarded young children who could resist eating a marshmallow for several minutes by giving them two. “Cool” kids – those who resisted temptation – fared better in life than those with “hot” ways of thinking who couldn’t wait.
It will sound familiar to anyone observing the Western handling of the coronavirus. Data and anecdotes leave little doubt that democracies are the least well governed societies in the world, apart from all others. Strong men are not a panacea. Since democracies have what academics call ‘system legitimacy’, they are better protected from having to bow to the masses than autocracies, which rely on ‘performance legitimacy’, as well as on bullying. Chinese leaders, in other words, should fear an angry population more than the United States.
It is no consolation that democracy is still the least bad option available. Any system ultimately sinks or swims by two measures. Is he able to protect his interests? Does he learn from his mistakes? The West’s response to Covid gives troubling answers to both. The world’s growing vulnerability to a pandemic has been broadcast for many years. Low-cost measures, such as data sharing systems and storage of essential equipment have been repeatedly recommended. Governments did nothing.
The fiscal cost of this pandemic so far has been $ 10 billion in public debt, 700 times the annual cost of creating a modest global fund to prepare for such a disaster. They say an ounce of prevention is better than a cure. In this case, that would come down to 43.8 pounds. The parallel with climate change does not need to be clarified. That’s without adding the human tragedy of the 4 million lives lost to Covid – or roughly 10 million based on excess deaths.
The real test of the West’s learning curve is whether it acts with the knowledge that this virus knows no borders. Collective immunity does not exist in a country. Western democracies nonetheless act as if home vaccination is their finish line. The rest of the world is fundamentally seen as an object of Western charity. It is poorly designed.
The United States has a pipeline of hundreds of millions of vaccines that its vaccine-hesitant population of around 90 million refuses to take. Rather than letting the shots expire, America’s obvious step would be to ship them to countries that will put them in people’s arms, or mandate unvaccinated Americans to take them. Preferably both. Sadly, the Joe Biden administration is prevented from taking either action by its fear of eliciting an emotional reaction. Imposing a mandate would increase his battle with those who believe that vaccines and masks are an attack on their “freedom”. Sending supplies overseas would lead to accusations that Biden cares more about foreigners than Americans.
The West’s next phase will be to offer boosters to people already vaccinated. As the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus pointed out this week, such a move would widen the gap between high-income countries, which administered 100 doses per 100 people, and countries with low income, where the rate is 1.5 injection. for 100 people. The latter’s immunity is as important to the health of the West as it is to his own. Epidemiologists warn that the virus is only a few mutations away from the defeat of vaccines. Then we could be back to square one.
The West’s silver lining is how quickly its scientists have delivered effective vaccines. Our democracies may show childish qualities, but these children are gifted. There is something in there. But as any teacher knows, talented children don’t know their limits. If Biden is serious about the conflict between democracy and autocracy, he should move beyond the hazy rhetoric of shared values. Democracy should be more visible and less revealing. The West needs to understand the benefits of sharing its marshmallows.