LLast week, the “age of me” finally reached its peak. The 45-year rise of libertarianism reached its peak. The doctrine that Brexit, Trump and a totally inadequate response to a global pandemic gave us has been exposed for what it always was. A viable civilization cannot be based on the primacy of our own islands of self-interest. Humans have to be united and if we don’t, this deadly virus punishes us with isolation, despair and death. Forgetting the “we” is getting lost.
The blockades in Britain and Europe have revealed how united we are and how universal the threat of Covid-19 is. Success requires abandoning the culture of each rich country trying to capture as much of any vaccine as possible, indifferent to why there is a global supply shortage, and shrugging off what is happening elsewhere. If we are learning anything as the virus mutates, it is that it has to be suppressed globally if the threat is to be eliminated.
Research just published in Sciences The magazine showed that the first wave of Covid in Britain was imported almost entirely from neighboring France, Italy and Spain. Now the new variant imported from South Africa reveals our same vulnerability: the more it spreads, the more dangerously it mutates and then attacks.
If Britain meets its target of vaccinating 13.5 million people by the end of February, it will have done well, but instead of triumphantly boasting that this is more than the rest of Europe combined, it proves, as the secretary put it. of Education, Gavin Williamson. that “we are a much better country”, ministers should be concerned about the slow pace of progress in the EU. Unless you’re doing well, too, our efforts remain fatally threatened.
Medical experts are correct in arguing that the defeat of Covid demands such a comprehensive and concerted approach as a war effort, but that applies not just at home but abroad.
There has been, criminally, very little reflection and very little coordination on how new vaccines will be produced and distributed globally in sufficient quantity. The numbers are stark. The world needs at least 10 billion doses of the two most effective vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, which give 5 billion people two injections to deliver a critical mass of immunity. It is good news that the UK has followed the EU and the US in approving the Moderna vaccine, but production won’t start until April. Together with the Pfizer vaccine, the production of these two will only reach 2 billion in 2021. AstraZeneca expects to produce 3 billion doses of the Oxford vaccine in 2021, less effective but cheaper and easier to distribute, but so far it has only produced 4 millions. Other vaccines, such as those from Johnson & Johnson and Novavax, will go live this year. But we are falling short.
I admire AstraZeneca’s willingness to produce 3 billion doses at cost, showing how a purpose-driven business operates, but there are limits to what even it can do. Instead of cutting the aid budget by £ 4 billion to spend at home to loud applause from the libertarian and nationalist right, the government should have spent it subsidizing AstraZeneca to double its production capacity, even if the facilities have than to be costly suspended. 2022 and 2023, or in the construction of gigantic government-owned vaccine plants. No company can shoulder the cost of investment to stop a global pandemic on the scale and immediacy needed, only to bear the cost later. This is a classic public good on a global scale, which must be supported by governments.
There has to be an international effort, led by the World Health Organization, of state-led vaccine production and distribution on a scale never seen before and carried out over the next 12 months. It would be a kind of Cop26, but focused on curbing Covid rather than climate change, which should have its first meeting in a few weeks. Within the EU, the UK could have insisted on EU leadership. As it is, we have to use what little leverage we have.
The libertarian anti-vaxers have to be attacked at the same time. In the 19th century, laissez-faire libertarians objected to the growth of local and central government, taxing and spending on potable water supply networks, sewage systems, and smallpox inoculation; it was an invasion of the state and encouraged collectivist liberal politics. The reply was that libertarian freedom meant nothing if you were dead. Public health, an existential affirmation of “we”, had to come first.
So today. The ragbag libertarian ecosystem, ranging from our own Toby Young and fellow commentators on the right, anti-lockdown MPs like Sir Desmond Swayne, and the consistently misguided Tory Covid Recovery Group, spreading to the withering Covid deniers in Murdoch. Fox News and the darkest forces of the American right must be denounced.
For his malign influence on public policy, look no further than Boris Johnson’s constant vacillations and mistakes about school lockdowns and closings, his own libertarian biases inflamed by not wanting to offend this powerful libertarian right. Neither he nor his cabinet have the mentality to do what is necessary. From its unique Britain-only approach to vaccine production and mockery of the EU to adequately protecting our health, care and education systems from Covid-proof (for example, all children from disadvantaged backgrounds should have the right to take this school year again), your first instincts are just wrong right now.
With around 100,000 Covid deaths at least now incorporated into the system, Johnson and his administration will face a reckoning similar to what Trump faces. The tide of libertarianism is disappearing. The tide of “we” is coming. Hopefully soon you will get a firm acceptance of public policies. It is a matter of life and death.
• Will Hutton is a columnist for Observer
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism