The director general of the World Health Organisation earlier this year said: “The greatest threat we face now is not the virus itself. Rather, it is the lack of leadership and solidarity at the global and national levels.” After the global financial crash in 2008, thanks in no small part to the leadership shown by Gordon Brown, world leaders came together to stem global economic haemorrhaging and take action to protect jobs, pensions and life savings. This time, that sort of leadership has been desperately lacking.
At the outset of the pandemic, a chaotic scramble to procure personal protective equipment saw governments compete with each other, pushing up prices. Tensions between China and the USA created a toxic environment for cooperation across borders, while the US withdrew entirely from the WHO. Vaccine nationalism rose as countries scrambled to buy up doses for their own citizens 12 months in and the global economic plan remains inadequate while UK leadership has been lacking.
The greatest challenge in 2021 will be the manufacture and distribution of a vaccine around the world. If we do not succeed, not only will we fail in our moral duty to some of the poorest people in the world but the health and economic fallout will be prolonged in every part of the world. To defeat the virus anywhere, we must defeat it everywhere.
That is why 2021 must be the year that the UK ends a decade of global retreat and drives a renewed international effort to tackle Covid, starting with a more just vaccine distribution to shorten the global crisis and aid the economic recovery of all countries. We will all be safest when every country can fight that pandemic with the best tools available.
One of the key challenges is funding. The UN initiative to develop, produce and fairly distribute tests, treatments and vaccines against Covid-19 is facing a £28bn budget shortfall. Part of this is an unprecedented global agreement (COVAX) on vaccine production and distribution that has brought together poorer and richer countries on an equal footing in pursuit of equitable access. But the government quickly needs to step up diplomatic efforts to ensure it is a success.
COVAX needs adequate funds to manufacture and distribute sufficient quantities of the vaccine. The UK should also be working to persuade all countries to do their part. However, the decision to abolish a longstanding commit to spending 0.7% of GNI on aid has eroded Britain’s moral authority at precisely the moment it is needed. With the election of Joe Biden, the USA may step forward, rejoining not only the World Health Organisation but possibly becoming full participants in the COVAX initiative too. We should be reaching out to President-Elect Biden to try to secure a change of course from the USA.
Second, we need to ensure intellectual property works for public health, starting with fair and transparent pricing. AstraZeneca have said their vaccine developed with Oxford will be available not for profit, at least during the duration of the pandemic, but there are many other barriers among different vaccines to scaling up production and distribution to the level it needs to be, including pricing and licensing. It would be a disaster if poorer countries and poorer citizens were cut off from access because they cannot afford to pay. By taking steps on this ourselves, we can light the way to ensure others follow suit.
Ours is a country where brilliant scientists came together with their international counterparts to pioneer treatments and vaccines. It’s a country with the sort of universal healthcare system, free at the point of use, which is a distant dream for so many people across the world. Yet we have a government with so little competence, energy or foresight that we end this year with one of the highest death tolls in Europe, the worst recession of any major economy and a sense amongst our allies abroad that we are absent from the biggest global challenge of my lifetime. For all of our sakes, 2021 has got to be the year that changes.