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The Winding Road of the COVID Crisis

A man wearing a personal protective equipment (PPE) suit stand next to the funeral pyre of his relative who died due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, at a cremation ground in New Delhi on May 6, 2021. Prakash SINGH / AFP

One of the pandemic’s many challenges is how it outflanks our attempts to impose narratives on it. Humans are storytelling creatures – we use narrative to make sense of chaos and to prioritize threats. Each new phase of the pandemic scrambles the stories we used to make sense of the previous phase.
 
The current COVID inferno in India is one of these twists, as is the dawning realization that even the few countries that have managed to vaccinate the majority of their populations might not achieve full herd immunity. This issue was recently raised in the United States and largely ascribed to cultural factors, most notably vaccine hesitancy resulting from the politicization of COVID measures driven by right-wing media.
 
But these aren’t the only factors raising doubts about the next chapter of the pandemic. Take the African island state of The Seychelles for example. While continental Africa has the lowest rate of vaccination in the world (1.4 doses for every 100 people, compared to 48 out of 100 in the U.S.) Seychelles is the world’s most vaccinated country. Between 60% and 70% of their 98,000 people have been jabbed.
 
Yet Seychelles announced this week that it’s going back into lockdown, with a surge of 1,068 cases on May 3, from 612 recorded on April 28. The spike doesn’t look as serious compared to India’s recent single-day tally of 400,000, but keep in mind that these new cases make up a full 1% of The Seychelles’s total population.  
 
Of the new infections, two-thirds were still unvaccinated or had received only one shot. But the remaining third had completed their full two-shot cycle. Seychelles used a mix of Chinese Sinopharm vaccines donated by the United Arab Emirates, and Covishield, a licensed Indian-made generic version of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
 
This raises many questions, not least around the issue of viral mutations. The AstraZeneca vaccine has proven notoriously weak against the South African viral variant, and the continuing lack of hard data on Sinopharm’s efficacy against different variants is not reassuring.
 
This week’s announcement by the Biden administration that they will support intellectual property waivers on vaccines at the WTO is a massive step towards global herd immunity. Both the pharmaceutical industry and the EU have complained that the waiver will inhibit private sector-led innovation. However, the U.S. government is hardly an enemy of intellectual property in normal times, and its support of the waiver is a real acknowledgment that COVID is not a normal threat. The only way we’ll keep it from permanently reshaping human society for the worse is through a World War II-style total global mobilization.
 
However, even the most ardent proponents of the waiver admit that it’s a medium-term solution, dependent on getting the mass production of generics up and running. Meanwhile, we’re all caught in this one-step-forward-two-steps-back race against the ever-mutating virus…

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