Gwynne Dyer. Trail Times file

Vaccines for the world: Charity or self-interest?

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).’

At the recent G7 summit, US president Joe Biden promised to distribute 500 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines free to the poorer countries by mid-2022. The other six (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom) have pledged around the same number on the same timetable.

So by a year from now the seven richest Western countries will have given out around one billion free doses of COVID vaccines. Pretty generous, no?

No. China leads all the G7 countries combined in the number of doses it has delivered to poorer countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Around half of all the doses going to the less-developed countries are Chinese.

Well, good for China. Sure it’s buying influence with its generosity, but what’s wrong with that? If the G7 countries want to counter it, try being equally generous.

But “generous” is actually the wrong word. “Self-interested” is better, because leaving large populations unvaccinated anywhere guarantees that new variants will arise. They will be more infectious and/or more deadly, and will spread into countries that think they are safe.

Take India, for example. It had a good “first wave,” with apparently low COVID casualties. Everybody knew that there was some under-counting of fatalities, but the worst-case estimate was that the real Indian death rate might be as high as that of France.

Only 3 per cent of Indians are vaccinated, but Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government got so cocky that it authorised all sorts of crowd events like election campaigns and religious festivals – and then in early 2021 the “Indian variant” arrived. (Modi doesn’t like that phrase, so we’re now supposed to call it “Variant D.”)

The new variant swept through India like a scythe, with daily death tolls as high as Brazil or the United States in their worst moments. But India has four times as many people as the United States, so that doesn’t tell us much. What is India’s real COVID-19 death rate now?

Recently, an enterprising Indian data journalist called Rukmini S., writing for online news site Scroll.in, checked out the official statistics in the state of Madhya Pradesh. She discovered that total recorded deaths from all causes had tripled in April and May.

Since there was no other plague striking Madhya Pradesh at that time, it’s safe to assume that the huge surge in deaths was mostly due to COVID-19. But on that assumption, COVID deaths in Madhya Pradesh in May were not five times higher, but up to forty-two times higher than the recorded COVID mortality figure.

This is what happens when you have a still largely unvaccinated population and you take your eye off the ball. The virus mutates, and the new variant spreads fast.

Even a half-vaccinated population is not safe. The first “Variant D” infection only reached England in April, but it already accounts for 90 per cent of new infections there — and the UK has just extended its lockdown measures for another month.

Nobody is safe until everybody is safe. Relative safety would require having 40 per cent of the world’s population vaccinated by January, and 60 per cent by mid-2022 — at a total cost, according to the International Monetary Fund, of around $50 billion.

The billion doses promised by the G7 for mid-2022 just don’t cut it. Even an extra billion from China is not enough. Two doses each for five billion people is what’s needed. Or we can choose to live with the killer variants instead.