While it took scientists less than a year to come up with a batch of effective vaccines against the coronavirus that has put much of the planet on hold, by doing so they have confronted governments everywhere with a host of difficulties few seem capable of overcoming. Most have to do with precedence, a question which has kept political thinkers busy for millennia. Who should be first in line for a shot? “Front-line health workers,” followed by the elderly and people who are vulnerable because they are already seriously ill, or individuals our current health minister, Carla Vissotti, says are of “strategic importance,” by which she seems to mean top Kirchnerites?
Soon after it was announced that vaccines were on the way, but there would not be enough of them for some time to come, interest groups of one kind or another demanded that they be given priority. The teachers’ union bosses say their members – most of whom are relatively young and presumably in good physical shape – say they deserve to be among the very first to get the jab, as do their counterparts in Hugo Moyano’s even more powerful lorry drivers’ union. And what about the cops who have to rub shoulders with people outside their personal bubble, politicians of all ages who say they are professionally obliged to press the flesh several times a day, and celebrities who think it is up to them to give a good example to a sceptical populace? Such men and women lost no time in demanding preferential treatment. Some got it.
For the best part of last week, the media have been making the most of the literary critic Beatriz Sarlo’s apparently principled refusal to take advantage of an offer coming from a colleague, who happens to be the wife of the Buenos Aires Province Governor (and protégé of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner) Axel Kiciloff, to get vaccinated in order to encourage others who may have their doubts about the Russian or Chinese concoctions that are available. As Ms Sarlo – like the equally well-known journalist Horacio Verbitsky who got the “VIP vaccine” row which cost Ginés García González his job as health minister off to a good start by confessing to queue-jumping – is in her late 70s, she was surely entitled to an early shot, but it would appear that the wider public is in no mood to make allowances of any kind.
All this would be fair enough if the rules were clearer. Needless to say, they are anything but. Neither here nor anywhere else is there an agreed-upon pecking order everyone can respect. This is hardly surprising – though all societies are hierarchical, opinions about who should be at the top, and why, are in constant flux. If the rhetoric favoured by politicians is to be taken seriously, health workers deserve not only to be inoculated first but also to be handsomely rewarded for what they are doing, but there are so many that vaccinating them any day soon, let alone giving them a big pay increase is not on the cards even in well-off countries, let alone in hard-up ones such as Argentina. As for the politicians and those eager to join their ranks, they themselves take it for granted that – seeing their services can be regarded as “strategic” and therefore “essential” – they are fully entitled to get their jabs before the rest of us, while those who dissent and say they will wait their turn are accused by their fellows of behaving as they do because they think a display of altruism will add a spot of lustre to their personal image.
Things are much the same on the international stage. After briefly heaving a collective sigh of relief on hearing that some of the vaccines which had been quickly developed actually worked, governments the world over started quarrelling over who should get them.
Nationalism soon came into play. With the Pfizer vaccine being the product of a joint US-German research team, it was unsurprising that North American and German pundits led the way in discrediting the mainly British AstraZeneca vaccine, whose defenders pointed out that, while the Pfizer one was pretty good, it was very expensive and, because it had be stored at temperatures rarely found outside the polar regions, distributing it in poor countries would make for a logistical nightmare. In contrast, theirs can be left in just about any fridge. As for the Russian Sputnik vaccine and several from China, Western regulatory agencies have yet to give them their coveted stamp of approval, but that has not deterred many countries, among them Argentina, from making use of them.
However, as no vaccine confers immortality, some people – about one in several million – have died after getting a jab; by calling a halt to vaccination programmes because they want to find out just what happened, as some nervous European governments have done with those featuring AstraZeneca, may put many more lives in danger, but some evidently feel they have little choice in the matter.
Meanwhile, egalitarians insist that vaccines should be distributed equally the world over and accuse governments in rich countries of cornering the market and, as Italy did, banning exports to places that might need them. In reply the Europeans and North Americans could say that the virus has proved to be much more lethal in the wealthier parts of the world than elsewhere.
There seem to be several reasons for this. One is that a far larger proportion of the people who live in “advanced” countries are very old by traditional standards and, given the coronavirus’s predilection for those who are in their 80s or over, it is natural that the death rate in Europe and the US is higher than in India or Africa. Another reason is that the way of life in many poorer societies seems to be healthier because people are less liable to get excessively fat, an advantage which is shared by Koreans, Japanese, Taiwanese and others who, despite having plenty of money and living longer than most, are less keen on fast food than North Americans, Britons or many continental Europeans. Unfortunately, Argentines have more in common with the notoriously overweight Westerners than with East Asians.
There is also the race to see which country vaccinates its people the quickest. Leading the pack by a wide margin is Israel, which could soon have vaccinated the entire population, followed, among the bigger countries, by the United Kingdom and the United States, with members of the European Union lagging far behind. As might have been suspected, this has infuriated the many European politicians who would like to see the offshore islanders pay dearly for leaving their club and are willing to go to virtually any length to make sure that they do even if their compatriots suffer as a result.