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Democracy’s ultimate boast is that societies do best when people take responsibility for their lives. Covid-19 has been putting that theory to the test. Every few months the west pops the proverbial champagne to celebrate the end of the pandemic. The hangover is worse for its predictability. The fact that western democracies are rarely able to think more than one step ahead augurs badly for their ability to fight global warming — or plan for the next pandemic.
Instant gratification is a trait usually associated with children. In the 1960s, a Stanford University scholar devised the famous marshmallow test that rewarded young children who could resist eating one marshmallow for several minutes by giving them two. The “cool” kids — those who resisted temptation — went on to do better in life than those with “hot” ways of thinking who could not wait.
This will ring familiar to anyone observing the west’s handling of coronavirus. Data and anecdote leave little doubt that democracies are the worst-governed societies in the world, apart from all the others. Strongmen are no panacea. Since democracies have what academics call “system legitimacy” they are better insulated from having to pander to the masses than autocracies, which rely on “performance legitimacy”, as well as intimidation. China’s leaders, in other words, should fear an angry population more than America’s.
It is no consolation that democracy is still the least bad option available. Any system ultimately sinks or swims by two measures. Is it capable of protecting its interests? Does it learn from its mistakes? The west’s response to Covid gives troubling answers to both. The world’s increasing vulnerability to a pandemic has been broadcast for many years. Low-cost measures, such as data-sharing systems, and stockpiling essential equipment were repeatedly recommended. Governments did nothing.
The fiscal cost of this pandemic so far has been $10tn of public debt, which is 700 times the annual cost of creating a modest global fund to prepare for such a disaster. They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In this case that would come to 43.8 pounds. The parallel to climate change does not need spelling out. That is without adding the human tragedy of the 4m lives lost to Covid — or about 10m based on excess deaths.
The real test of the west’s learning curve is whether it is acting on the knowledge that this virus knows no borders. There is no such thing as herd immunity in one country. Western democracies are nevertheless acting as though domestic vaccination is their finishing line. The rest of the world is basically viewed as an object of western charity. This is badly misconceived.
The US has a pipeline of hundreds of millions of vaccines that its roughly 90m-strong vaccine-hesitant population is refusing to take. Rather than let the shots expire, America’s obvious step would be to ship them to countries that will put them into people’s arms, or mandate unvaccinated Americans to take them. Preferably both. Unfortunately, Joe Biden’s administration is stymied from taking either step by its fear of provoking an emotional backlash. Imposing a mandate would increase its battle with those who think that vaccines and masks are an attack on their “freedom”. Sending supplies abroad would prompt accusations that Biden cares more for foreigners than Americans.
The west’s next phase will be to offer booster shots to the already vaccinated. As the World Health Organization’s head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, pointed out this week such a step would widen the gap between the high-income countries, which have administered 100 doses per 100 people, and the low-income ones, where the rate is 1.5 shots for every 100 people. The latter’s immunity is as important to the west’s health as its own. Epidemiologists warn that the virus is only a few mutations from defeating the vaccines. Then we could be back to square one.
The west’s silver lining is the speed with which its scientists delivered effective vaccines. Our democracies may exhibit childish qualities but these kids are gifted. There is something to that. But as any teacher knows, talented children have a poor grasp of their limits. If Biden is serious about the contest between democracy and autocracy, he should move beyond gauzy talk about shared values. Democracy ought to do more showing and less telling. The west needs to understand the benefits of sharing its marshmallows.