The increase in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the United States is a sad reminder that the pandemic did not end. The world economy will not return to normal as long as the disease is not controlled everywhere.
But the American case is a real tragedy, because what is happening here is totally unnecessary. While the people of emerging and developing countries yearn for the vaccine (and many die from not having it), the supply in the United States is large enough to give a second dose (and now a booster) to its entire population. And when almost the entire population is vaccinated, it is almost certain that COVID-19 will “disappear”, as in the memorable phrase of former President Donald Trump.
However, the number of people vaccinated in the United States is still insufficient to prevent a further increase in cases in many areas, as a result of the highly contagious delta variant. How is it possible that in a country with an apparently well-educated population there are so many people who act irrationally, against their interests, against science and against the teachings of history?
Part of the answer is that despite being rich, the country is not as well educated as it is supposed to be; their international comparative performance on standardized assessments accounts for this. In many areas of the United States (including some with the highest rates of resistance to vaccination) science education is particularly deficient, due to the politicization of fundamental issues such as evolution and climate change, which in many cases were excluded from the programs study.
In this environment there are many people who are fertile ground for misinformation. And social media platforms, safe from any responsibility for what they transmit, have created a business model based on maximizing users’ connection time by spreading false information (including in relation to COVID-19 and vaccines).
But an essential part of the answer has to do with a huge misunderstanding (present especially on the right) in relation to individual freedom. A common argument of those who refuse to wear a mask or maintain social distancing is that it is a limitation of their freedom. But the freedom of one ends where that of the others begins. If by refusing to wear a mask or get vaccinated, some people cause others to get COVID-19, they are denying them the most fundamental right to life itself.
The essence of the matter is that there are large externalities: in a pandemic, the actions of one person affect the well-being of others. And where these externalities exist, the well-being of society requires collective action: regulate to restrict socially harmful behaviors and promote socially beneficial behaviors.
Every orderly society implies restrictions. Prohibitions such as killing, stealing … restrict individual freedom, but it is clear that a society cannot function without them. In the world that will follow COVID, the Ten Commandments may have to be interpreted as including “you will not kill, and you will not kill by transmitting contagious diseases when you can avoid it.”
And in the same way: “You will be vaccinated.” Any limitation of individual freedom by requiring the application of safe and highly effective vaccines against the pandemic is nothing compared to the social benefits (and consequent economic benefits) of public health. That all people should get vaccinated (with a few limited exceptions for medical reasons) falls short of mature. And since many governments seem too fearful of demanding it, employers, schools, social organizations must take care of it; any area of organized activity where there is contact between people.
As we have learned these past 18 months, global health is a global public good. As the disease continues to rage in some parts of the world, the risk of a more lethal, more contagious and vaccine-resistant mutation will grow.
But in most of the world, the problem is not that there is resistance to vaccination but a huge shortage of vaccines. It is clear that the private sector is unable to increase production to ensure an adequate supply. Is that because vaccine producers lack capital? Is there a shortage of glass vials or syringes? Or perhaps they hope that restricting the supply of doses will increase prices and profits? One of the main obstacles to increased supply is access to the use of necessary intellectual property; That is why the proposal to suspend patents that is being discussed at the World Trade Organization is so important.
And given the urgency and scale of the challenge, more is needed: One of the actions that the US President Joe Biden’s administration can take is to invoke the Defense Production Act and take advantage of the fact that the federal government is holder of fundamental patents. The United States has given drug companies free access to these public intellectual goods, while raking in billions of dollars in profits. The United States must use all the instruments at its disposal to increase production within and outside the country.
This also falls off mature. Even if the cost of vaccination worldwide ran into several billion dollars, it would be nothing compared to the human and economic cost of continuing the pandemic.
Joseph E. Stiglitz is a Nobel Laureate in Economics, Distinguished Professor at Columbia University, and a member of the Independent Commission for the Reform of International Corporate Taxation.
© Project Syndicate 1995–2021
Translation of Esteban Flamini