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Vaccine delay: is Australia accidentally doing the right thing?

February 14, 2021 - 18:23 -- Admin

The federal government has overpromised and underdelivered on the COVID-19 vaccine. It deserves to be criticised for that.

But delaying immunisation means that Australia may — albeit accidentally — be doing the right thing.

Vaccine nationalism was always to be expected – and it’s a shame that the rich world has  snapped up most of the current supply. The political economy of COVID-19 is merely following a long-standing trend of colonial extraction.

But calls to do “whatever it takes” to get ahead of others in acquiring and distributing the vaccines are unprincipled and short-sighted.

Medical care is a highly scarce resource. In most cases (especially in emergencies) it is allocated based on need. The person suffering a heart attack will be treated ahead of someone with a broken toe — even if the latter arrived first and complains loudly.

COVID-19 is a global emergency. Producing vaccines takes time and In the short-run supply will be dwarfed by need.

So, we have a simple zero-sum game: every administered dose means someone misses out elsewhere. Immunising Australians – remember that we have 39 active cases and five deaths in the past three months – would unquestionably mean avoidable deaths in places where the virus is killing thousands each day.

So much for being a good global citizen.

Also, immunisation is not the silver bullet people seem to think it is. Scientists are increasingly convinced that the COVID will become endemic. This means that public health measures will be a feature of daily life for some time.

But for those that remain unconvinced, there’s also a strong self-interest angle to waiting our turn.

As we’ve seen, viruses mutate. Some mutations can result in strains that are more contagious, more lethal or even one more resistant to vaccines. Uncontrolled spread anywhere in the world can yield variants that pose a threat everywhere.

This is why COVID-19 is estimated to cost developed nations around US$119 billion per year, while unequal allocation of vaccines is forecast to slow global economic output by US$1.2 trillion a year.

Vaccinating against COVID-19 is not an Olympic sport. We’re dealing with a deadly pandemic that needs to be stopped as soon as possible. This means allocating vaccines based on need and Australia’s need is thankfully low.

Waiting our turn is in our best interest — morally, diplomatically, and economically.

This is an edited version of a piece published in Crikey on 4 February 2021.