Checking in on Covid

Issue 53 - 27 April 2021 (7-min read)

This week, The Global Tiller checks in on Covid-19, a virus that's hell bent on travelling the world, getting a makeover in every country that's hosted it long enough.

Currently, the virus has taken residence in South Asia — previously spared the worst of the pandemic — and is wreaking havoc across India. The images coming out of India are, unfortunately, not new. We saw them first in China, then Italy, then Spain, then France, then the United Kingdom, then the United States, then Brazil, Papua New Guinea and now India and Fiji. Helpless people struggling to breathe, their family members running from pillar to post searching for oxygen tanks and ventilators. Next comes the piles of bodies, graveyards run out of land, crematoriums run out of supplies and your loved ones are reduced to numbers, meaningless statistics whose magnitude we fail to comprehend.

You’d think our governments would have learned by now to prepare accordingly but it seems 'Covid-exceptionalism' is real. We’d rather believe that the virus would spare us for some inexplicable reason, than impose crowd controls, prepare hospitals and help our populations survive the crisis.

We should blame our governments for failing to take the right measures on time but the virus isn’t restricted to geographical borders so we can hardly expect it to be managed by individual governments on their own. What’s worse is that even 3,116,444 Covid-19 deaths did not bring the world to act together and deal with a global problem, globally. 

A glaring example of this insensitivity to the plight of others comes with the alliance of rich countries blocking vaccine patents that would allow the Global South to start manufacturing vaccines for their populations. A total of 83% of vaccine shots have been administered in high- and upper-middle-income countries while only 0.2% of shots have been administered in low-income countries.

This isn’t a problem that comes to us as a surprise. Even we, at The Global Tiller, warned of a potential vaccine apartheid back in September unless the governments specifically mandated that pharmaceutical companies develop vaccines for all. What was needed at the time was for governments to make these vaccine manufacturers share their knowledge and patents in return for the millions of public money that funded their research. 

Yet, rich countries raced ahead to procure vaccines for their people, in much the same way as the people who hoarded stocks of toilet paper back in March last year. Even worse, they blocked India and South Africa’s bid to ban Covid vaccine patents

A surprising actor in this crisis has been the Gates Foundation, which has been criticised for impeding global access to Covid vaccines by insisting that pharmaceutical companies maintain exclusive intellectual property claims. Bill Gates said "no" to sharing vaccine recipes with poor countries claiming that laboratories do not have adequate manufacturing capabilities even though that’s not really the case. Numerous pharmaceutical companies across the world possess the right equipment, what we are lacking is strong political leadership that could withstand the pressure of corporate profit-making, even when it comes from the likes of Bill Gates and big pharma.  

Despite the army of lobbyists resisting generic vaccines, the sheer desperation seen in India has led to an international outcry. Pressure has been mounting on rich countries to step up and do the bare minimum. As a result, the US has signalled today that it will send vaccines and other supplies to India, with a possibility that it may eventually share the materials needed to produce them too. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed many fault-lines in our societies but if we want to deal with the challenges coming our way we will have to do better: like strengthening multilateral institutions, like the WHO, instead of reducing them to yet another entity incapable of protecting the vulnerable. As this case shows, even billionaire philanthropists are protecting their future wealth.

Until next week, take care!

Hira - Editor - The Global Tiller

If you’d like to read our previous issues, you can access our archives here.

State of affairs

It would be funny, if it wasn’t so sad. Watch Irish comedian Tadhg Hickey demonstrate just how ridiculous the ongoing patent protections are.

What’s new with us! gets a facelift! Check out the new look of our website and let us know what you think.

…and now what?

Our world has a big problem. It’s been going on for some time now. It’s exhausting because it’s isolating and it impacts every single one of us. It’s difficult because we have yet to find a solution for it. 

I’m not talking about Covid. I’m talking about our biases. They are wired into our brains to give a quick-fix solution when that is not always something suited to our current context. For example, the availability bias that makes us care more about information that’s recent than one that’s way back in the past, or way ahead in the future. We’re also more sensitive to short-term impacts than long-term ones. We’re more sensitive to information related to people who look like us than those who don’t. The list is long and I could go on forever.

Since more than a year now, we’re fighting against our own evolutionary bugs that make us biased. We have had to resist conspiracists who use our availability bias against us and invade our sources of information with concocted theories — not because they’re true but because they’re so much better than the hypotheses and doubts shared by scientists. Doesn’t matter the truth of it, whatever I hear most often becomes my truth.

As we lack a natural reflex to understand long-term impacts, we fail to understand that we’re all running a marathon now. We wear our masks and isolate for weeks, but then boredom takes over rationality and we forget why we were isolating to begin with. 

As we overvalue our own thoughts and communities, we fail to understand that what happens to others will happen to us. Add to this our love for quick utilitarian fixes and there you go: a recipe for a disaster as we see it unfolding in one country after another. 

When you look at the pandemic of 1918, it seems that they overcame it faster than us, even if many more people died. I’m not nostalgic of the past, trust me. But that doesn’t mean I’m all in for the present. And when you look closely at our present, you realise that we’ve trapped ourselves in our biases and we don’t seem to able to go against them.

Why? I’d love to have an answer for you but, unfortunately, I don’t. Perhaps it could be that we’ve slowed down the teaching of critical thinking in the race to find quick-fixes. We believe everything comes down to a simple algorithm, forgetting along the way that we are complex systems that go way beyond a simple succession of orders to accomplish.

As long as we are unable to understand the deep causes of our social disorganisation, even when we face a threat like a pandemic, we may not be able to face the next one. 

So, what do we need urgently?

  • Empathy and Love: As long as we approach our species with a limited view on who’s our “kin” or who’s our “neighbour”, we will lose the ability to learn from others’ experiences. Humility comes when you understand that others are like you, similar to you, equal to you. 

  • Curiosity: Not looking for simple solutions to move on but being willing to question, search, interrogate, discuss, debate and expand our own views on different topics. Otherwise we’ll be offered very limited solutions.

  • Doubt and Patience: Understanding that life works mostly through trial and error more than a straight line of code. That life is all about being willing to adapt, to change, to doubt and to change direction. It’s long, it’s exhausting, but who said we were in a hurry? 

I remember listening to Toby Ord in a podcast some months ago, saying: 

Humanity is careless because it’s young. We’re just about 200,000 years old while most of other species are about millions of years old. We need to be able to go beyond immediacy. 

So yes, the pandemic is an urgent matter. But our evolution will go beyond that. Hopefully…

Philippe - Founder - Pacific Ventury

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