The Coming Vaccine Crisis: A Prediction
The Covid-19 pandemic is set to become the defining feature of 2020. Fear of the virus and its impact has been the driving force behind much of governmental and business decision-making this year.
The impact of the virus is so widespread, so ubiquitous, that its alternative name, “coronavirus”, is particularly apt, considering that the word “corona” is the Latin word for crown. Indeed, the world and its institutions have been forced to bow their knees to the reign of this deadly disease.
A vaccine has often been touted as the silver bullet solution to this problem. The United States under President Trump has initiated “Operation Warp Speed”, an attempt to speed up the discovery of a vaccine. Other nations are pursuing similar endeavors.
Vaccines typically take years to develop because they have to pass through rigorous checks and tests before they are deemed safe to be released to the public. The idea is to greatly speed up this process without compromising safety or quality.
So let’s assume that the vaccine does arrive. Then what? We are supposed to believe that the vaccine will then be mass-produced, the global population will be inoculated, herd immunity will be achieved, and the threat of the virus will finally go away. Problem solved.
Or will the problems only begin? I believe that when the Covid-19 vaccine arrives, it will only signal a new chapter in the fight against this virus, not its conclusion.
The WHO chief warned in October 2020 that “vaccine nationalism will prolong the pandemic, not shorten it.” He continues, “We need global solidarity every step of the way.”
So what is vaccine nationalism? It is a situation in which governments choose to prioritize vaccinating their own populations first before sharing the vaccine with others. It is every country for itself. This means that developed countries get first dibs at hoarding vaccine supplies, while developing and underdeveloped countries will be at the end of the queue.
This hyper-nationalistic scenario will be bad news for international order and cooperation. It will re-emphasize the lines between the haves and the have-nots. It will lead to underhanded, cutthroat measures by poorer countries to do whatever they can to get the vaccine, and at an affordable price; richer countries, on the other hand, will do whatever they can to ensure that the vaccine remains in their control.
In the worst-case scenario, waves of popular discontent will break out in disadvantaged countries, putting pressure on their governments to at least appear to drive a hard bargain. In an absence of an olive branch, global allegiances may re-align, and old international suspicions re-kindled and heightened.
The moment a vaccine is announced, a misinformation campaign will break out, with alarming efficacy. Anti-vaxxers will come out of the woods, in droves, and launch a blitz campaign against the vaccine.
And unlike their previous campaigns against established vaccines like polio or the MMR, they will have one fact on their side: that the vaccine is new and untested in a population. The novelty of the vaccine will be highlighted, circled, and underlined — the message will be that you just can’t trust a new vaccine and inject that new stuff into your body.
Never mind the assurance of scientists and doctors that the vaccine would have passed through rigorous testing to prove that it is safe. Anti-vaxxers will ring the alarm bells and connect the vaccine to shoddy, politically-flavored conspiracy theories. In countries where vaccination remains a choice, many will choose not to take it, preferring instead to live with the risk of catching the virus.
If enough people choose not to take the vaccine, herd immunity will not be achieved, and the threat of the virus will remain. Even if governments mandated everyone to take the vaccine, there will still be speculation about its safety and efficacy. Anecdotal stories will abound; any cases of people who have coincidentally become ill after taking the vaccine will spread like wildfire. As a result, governments will need to go to great lengths to counter vaccine misinformation.
The Economic and Mental Health Reckoning
Assuming the best-case scenario that the vaccine is rolled out well, the whole world is vaccinated in a matter of months, and that the threat of the virus is completely eliminated. Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief — and then attention will turn to what has been lost and sacrificed in the battle against the virus, and A Reckoning will begin.
This reckoning will be two-fold. First, the reckoning of the economic impact of the virus. We will hear more and more stories of businesses being forced into bankruptcy and families devastated by economic ruin. The economic anguish of so many will have its day in the sun.
Second, there will be a reckoning of the mental health disaster that this virus has spawned. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders will rise in response to the world living through an unprecedented, extended period of uncertainty.
As the health threat of the virus dissipates, news headlines will turn their attention to the virus’s economic and mental health impact. The public mood will grow bitter, and people will demand that their governments do more. Governments, already having their coffers stretched thin by the impact of the virus, will try to do what they can to satisfy popular anger, but it will be meager. Protests and political turmoil are sure to follow suit.
This reckoning will swallow up a good chunk of the years post-recovery. People will talk about it, write about it, and debate about it. Movies will be made, books will be written. Some countries will recover quicker than others; some countries may not recover at all.
The sooner the world comes to terms with the fact that a vaccine will not solve all our problems, the better prepared we can be. The battle against Covid-19 will be a little longer than expected, but we can win this fight nonetheless — if we prioritize cooperation, compassion, and resolve. In due course, we will end this pandemic and mitigate its impact, but let there be no doubt that there will be unexpected challenges along the way.