By Rajan Philips –
For a second year in succession Christmas has come under the pall of a global pandemic. It is not just Christmas, for the festivals of all religions have fallen under the same pandemic pall. But Christmas is more global than other religions if only because it is also the most commercial. So being is really an affront to its namesake, the Man from Nazareth. One week before his crucifixion and death, Jesus demonstrated a rare instance of inspired anger when he whipped and chased away a motley crowd of merchants and traders in the great Temple of Jerusalem. “My house shall be a house of prayer, he scolded, “but you are making it a den of thieves.” The symbolism of that anger against the forces of market in Jerusalem’s place of worship has not prevented the birth of Christ being commercialized two millennia later. Christianity may have rid itself of its colonial complicity, but it is still gift-wrapped in global consumerism in the celebration of Christmas.
But the heavy wrap this year, as it was last year, continues to be the pandemic. Many in the West, especially governments, were hoping that with full vaccination they would have seen the back of Covid-19. But Omicron has dashed all hopes for a winter of reprieve. Instead, it is another winter of despair and discontentment. Another new phase or wave in the relentless battle that the world’s medical professionals and scientists are waging against an almost mythically self-reproducing virus. Three factors, vaccine apartheid, vaccine hesitancy and public health hostility are making it difficult for medical professionals and scientists to subdue this pathogen. All three are sociopolitical, and none of them technical or unavoidable. Because of them, the world might end up having variants after every letter in the Greek Alphabet.
The WHO estimates that the current global vaccine production capacity is 1.5 billion doses a month, and the total global production by mid-2022 is expected to reach 24 billion. Enough to double-doze every person in the world and leave a good balance for boosters. Yet, the disparity in vaccine administration between high-income and low-income countries is staggering. At the end of October, 133 doses have been administered to 100 people in wealthy countries, and a mere four doses per 100 in the poorer countries.
In South Africa, where Omicron was first detected on November 24, only 26 percent of the population have received full vaccination (two doses), whereas the rate of full vaccination in most Western countries is higher than 80%. More than a half of the world’s population has not received any dose at all. Only 58% have received a single dose and 52% none at all. WHO set a minimum target of 10% vaccination for every country to be reached by the end of September, but 56 countries (mostly in Africa and the Middle East) have failed to reach the target. The new wave of Omicron is a direct result of the global vaccine disparity, which really is vaccine apartheid.
The WHO, its Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – the Tigrayan from the now beleaguered Ethiopia, and medical scientists in almost every Western country have been pleading with Western governments to expand the global supply of vaccine and ensure a more uniform vaccine distribution between countries. They have been warning that no country can be protected until every country is vaccinated. But there is no change in the mindset of Western governments. They are now focused on rapid administration of booster shots in their own countries and there is hardly any indication of expanding vaccine supply in low-income countries. There are American medical experts who are questioning the wisdom of diverting resources to give booster shots to the vaccinated instead of vigorously targeting the unvaccinated to get their two-dose vaccines.
Israel is already starting the fourth dose for 60+ age groups. This should boost Pfizer and Moderna to get busy lobbying for and marketing a fourth dose in North America and Europe. The two companies have shown no urgency or even interest in sending anything to the vaccine-deprived countries. Moderna is already in a court battle with the US government for excluding US National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists in patency accreditations for its mRNA vaccine. Moderna’s vaccine is being valued at $18 billion for 2021 only. Not a small amount for Moderna not to fight its own government for monopoly over royalties. Never mind Moderna’s research was massively supported by the American taxpayers. It was a different age in the US in 1955 when Jonas Salk, the “miracle worker” who developed the polio vaccine, declined to patent the vaccine or profit from it.
Now, Pfizer and Moderna have become the new vaccine scrooges of pandemic Christmas. Not even Pope Francis would be able to redeem these scrooges to become globally generous with their vaccines. Nor can the Pope persuade Western governments to allow vaccine production in developing countries. With the surprising exception of the Biden Administration, every Western government is being pushed by corporate interests to oppose global production of vaccines. Nonetheless, Christmas pleas and Papal admonitions and should keep coming. And if prayers would work, God speed to them.
Vaccine apartheid is one side of the Covid-19 coin, the other side belongs to vaccine hesitancy and public health hostility. Vaccine hesitancy is no longer the benign domain of the cautious. It is now a malignant movement of anti-vaxxers. They are universal, and every society has an unfair share of them. The country that suffers them most is also the country that is awash in vaccines – the United of States America. Only 61.5% Americans are fully vaccinated and 76.5% of them have received only one dose. The culture of political correctness and the laxity of relativism might be partly blamed for the failure of Western governments to aggressively counter the false narratives of anti-vaxxers in the social media and check their activities for the greater good of society. It is easily said and done in authoritarian societies.
Left Cheer in Chile, Coup Fears in the US
For more than 30 years civil society organizations have been campaigning for transparency in government. Covid-19 has brought about transparency of the unexpected kind, the transparency of government incompetence. Quite a few governments have tried hard and tried sincerely to contain the virus, but no government has been conclusively successful. Not even New Zealand. China officially stands for zero-Covid, but what is unofficially predictable is zero-information. Most governments have been muddling through with transparent incompetence. Some of them are being made to pay the price by their electors.
Right-wing zealots and charlatans who came to power with big acclaims have been cut to size or sent packing. Donald Trump lasted only one term, but nobody is writing him off. 2024 could be another Biden-Trump runoff. May be, Trump deserves a more lasting punishment with an even more disastrous second term as his permanent legacy. Narendra Modi, who tried hard to be peas in the same Indo-American pod with Trump, is now being forced to try even harder to protect his political bases in India. The most spectacular falling from grace is the lot of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. His buffoonery and incompetence are causing Britain dearly.
Governing Tory MPs in the British parliament are voting against their own government’s Covid-19 measures. The Johnson cabinet needed the support of opposition Labour to pass new public health regulations. And the people have had it with Johnson two years after giving him a thumping majority. In a recent by-election the Tories lost a seat (North Shropshire) for the first time in 200 years. They blew a majority of 23,000 in the general election and lost to Liberal Democrats by 6,000 votes. A turnaround of nearly 30,000 votes. As Lib-Dem’s winning candidate Helen Morgan declared, the “party is over” for Prime Minister Johnson.
While the UK and much of Europe are in convulsions, Germany, the villain of 20th century Europe, is emerging as the new example of political maturity and stability. To wit, the very consociational transition from Chancellor Angela Merkel and Christian Democratic Union after 16 years to new a coalition government led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the Social Democratic Party and including Germany’s Green Party and the new pro-business Free Democratic Party. Stranger things might be happening across the (Atlantic) pond in the Americas.
At one end, really in the southwestern corner of the continent, in Chile, a leftist millennial was elected last Sunday as its new President handsomely defeating a free-market buccaneer – 56% to 44% in the binary vote. Gabriel Boric is a 35 year old Chilean political activist and unfinished law graduate of Croatian-Spanish origin. He became prominent during the 2109 civil disobedience protests Chile against inequality. Mr. Boric ran on an anti-Pinochet platform, pledging to end Chile’s vaunted neoliberal economic model. “If Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave,” he has vowed. But there is nothing grave about the transition of power, however. Both the defeated candidate, Antonio Kast, and outgoing President Sebastian Pinera (a conservative billionaire) have pledged their support to the new President. And the President elect has promised, “I am going to be the president of all Chileans.” For a country once notorious for its coups, Chile has become a “model of civility.”
It is quite a different story in the United States of America, once the fomenter of coups in Latin America. An old running joke among Latin American diplomats was the question: “Why are there no coups in the US?” And the answer, “Because, there is no American Embassy in Washington.” Well, there might be one now. While the Chileans were celebrating democracy, Washington Post ran an op-ed by three retired US military generals, warning the imminence of a coup attempt in the US by disgruntled sections of the military if Donald Trump or a candidate like him were to lose the next presidential election in 2024. Such a prospect is not “outlandish” according to the generals, with the “military hobbled and divided” after its politicization under Trump. A coup may not come to pass in the US, but the historical irony in the political transposition between Chile and the US should not be missed.
When General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected socialist government of Dr. Salvador Allende in Chile, on 11 September 1973, Sri Lanka was under a popularly elected socialist government (of the United Front Parties). The island had survived the insurrection of 1971 and had become a Republic in 1972. Soon after the coup in Chile, the Left leaders of the United Front government organized a massive political rally in Colombo, and warned of the threat of American imperialism facing the island. No such threat materialized then or later. And nearly fifty years later, as Chile celebrates rediscovery of democracy, there are many rumblings in Sri Lanka about its political future. There is no threat from the military to the government, but the fear is whether the government will use the military against the people. Or a self-coup (or autocoup) staged by the government, jettisoning its own legal legitimacy.
My contention has been that the Sri Lankan military is far too socialized and is tied up in myriads of kinship knots, and any attempt by the government to pit the military against the people will only backfire against the government. Another saving grace is in the proven incompetence of the government in any area of action, and a military action will be no exception. That does not mean the government will not try something stupid. Right now, the government seems to be running scared, out of ideas, and out of money, most importantly foreign exchange money.
It can barely muster $1.6 billion in foreign exchange to buy a month of imports. The loquacious Governor of the Central Bank is promising to beef up the reserve to $3 billion by year end. He had better, given the double dipping salary and pension benefits he has helped himself to after his re-appointment. But his assured sources for foreign funding are pathetic – SWAP facilities from Middle Eastern countries and South Asian neighbours. China is not in any mood to give, but only to demand, not to mention its sudden overtures in the North . Foreign exchange is only one of the government’s many worries. There are too many of them.
So much so, the President seems to have taken the advice of whomsoever and prorogued parliament until 18 January in the New Year. Parliament was going to be on vacation till January 11 any way, and extending it by one more week by proroguing it did not make much sense to many people. Except for the government to bury its head in sand, ostrich wise. Speculations are that the government will use the interval to dissolve its bothersome parliamentary committees and get rid of their out-of-control Chairs. In addition, there could be a cabinet shuffle and some of the current Ministers are apparently not sure if they will be shuffled around or sacked altogether.
There is no Pieter Keuneman around in parliament to offer the old wisecrack that there is no point in shuffling a pack of jokers without any aces. The latest joke to come out of the current parliament is the purported action plan of the Ministry of the Environment to convert Sri Lanka’s parliament into a “Paperless Parliament.” Why not a speechless parliament? Should people be thankful that government leaders are unlimited in their resources to make them laugh? That might be the only positive Christmas note in the midst of misfiring cooking gas cylinders, soaring prices, and universal cuts of power, water and fertilizer.