The COVID Pandemic

This last year, with the disastrous COVID-19 pandemic, has been a challenging one worldwide. Massive setbacks in health and livelihoods have accentuated the stark inequities within communities and between countries. Especially in nations with a huge gap between rich and poor, those living in the most disadvantaged conditions have been hardest hit by the virus. Not only do those with the lowest wages live in the most crowded and vulnerable conditions, but typically do the “essential” jobs that increase their exposure to the virus. And they often have preexisting health conditions that increase the morbidity of the virus.

The United States, with an income gap among the world’s widest, has likewise had by far the highest rates of COVID. The US, with only 5% of the global population, soon had over 20% of the world’s cases and deaths from COVID. There are many contributing causes for this, including high-level mismanagement and a maelstrom of misinformation, coupled with systemic racial and class discrimination. In the US, COVID case and death rates among Latinos and Blacks have been two to three times higher than in whites—an inequality led by the glaring disparity of income.

In Mexico, the pandemic has likewise struck disastrously hard—in part for similar reasons. After the US and Brazil, Mexico has among the highest income disparities in the Americas. Although the World Bank now dubs Mexico a “middle-income country” (MIC) thanks to its growing number of multimillionaires, a large swath of the population still lives near or below the poverty line. The living and working conditions of this impoverished underclass make social distancing and other COVID precautions difficult. And widespread distrust of authorities doesn’t help.

In Mexico, as elsewhere, the COVID-provoked unraveling of the economy has also especially devastated the poor, droves of whom have lost jobs as local shops and businesses cut back or close down. Many families we’ve known for decades, who farm or fish for a living, can no longer sell their produce because multitudes are too destitute to buy needed food. Many subsist on a few tortillas, occassionally with a bit of frijoles de olla (diluted bean soup). They can’t pay their electric bills, water bills, or rent. Government assistance to the distressed is at best paltry and hit-or-miss. The numbers of homeless are surging. Suicide has increased. … But at the same time there are many heartwarming examples of folks sharing what little they have and helping each other out.

The continuing pandemic has been has been a big challenge for the disability and rehab programs with which HealthWrights collaborates. Amazingly, both the PROJIMO programs (in Coyotitán and Duranguito) keep on providing much-needed services, despite the difficulties and constraints. Habilítate Mazatlán (the newer program run by disabled recovering drug users)—continues to custom-make special seating for children who need individualized aids. Now in the hard times of COVID, many of the families with ties to these programs involved in are struggling to meet their needs—as are the programs themselves, and HealthWrights is seeking ways to assist.

Where Will the Pandemic Go from Here?

Forecasts of how and how long the COVID pandemic will continue vary widely—from distressingly pessimistic to what I fear is naively hopeful. Over and again, the fateful “curve” of new cases has flattened or dropped, only to be followed by another—and yet another—more ominous surge. Predictions of when the plague will abate and life will return to normal have been repeatedly pushed to later dates.

Hopes (for many but not all) have risen with immunization. Thanks to “warp speed” development of vaccines, optimism (and for anti-vaxxers, pessimism) has rebounded. A fair number of people have already been vaccinated—at least in the richer countries where vaccines are more available. And in some of those same countries, numbers of new cases have begun to drop.

But the wave of optimism may be premature. A combination of factors could set back the gains.

To effectively halt the pandemic, epidemiologists say we need to reach “herd immunity”, i.e., enough people must become immune—by vaccination and/or contagion—so the virus no longer spreads. Herd immunity is attained only after a certain percentage of the population has gained immunity—a percentage that’s higher the more contagious the infection. For COVID-19, epidemiologists estimates herd immunity is achieved when 80% of the population can’t get infected.

But getting to herd immunity is a race against time. As long as large numbers anywhere can still contract the virus, lots of mutant strains will continue to evolve, and it will be more likely that some of the new variants will be more contageous, more deadly, and/or more vaccine resistant. Already ominous variants have appeared in England, South Africa, Brazil—and more recently in California and New York (all regions that have had exceptionally high COVID rates). These new variants are rapidly spreading worldwide. The sooner enough people are vaccinated to achieve herd immunity, the greater the chances of containing the pandemic before it gets totally out of control.

However, these control efforts must be worldwide. The coronavirus respects no boundaries. If the US achieves high vaccination coverage, protection will be short-lived if other places don’t achieve the same. Newly mutated variants may spread even faster and be more deadly, and/or resist the current vaccines. So unless every country reaches adequate coverage, new, more dangerous COVID strains, originating anywhere, may soon spread everywhere. This means the whole world must have the necessary vaccines—and quickly. No nation—however wealthy or heavily armed—is an island unto itself.

Big Pharma—taking bows for its “warp speed” creation of COVID vaccines—is in reality an unconscionable obstacle to achieving high global immunization coverage quickly enough to halt the pandemic. The giant, profit-hungry drug companies—which government (i.e., taxpayers) financed handsomely to develop vaccines in record time—greedily oppose sharing their carefully guarded formulas or waiving their monopolistic patent rights granted them by the World Trade Organization’s international patent agreement, called TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights). An emergency waiver of relevant patent rights during the pandemic—so that billions of vaccine doses could be produced quickly at low cost by multiple qualified non-profits in low and middle income countries (LMICs)—has been petitioned for by the World Health Organization and over 100 member countries. But Big Pharma, backed by a few rich capitalist nations representing 13% of the world population (US, EU, Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea, et al.) strongly opposes such a potentially life-saving waiver. The big drug companies tout their generosity in pricing their vaccines at “only” about US$20 per dose, whereas normally they would charge at least $600/dose for a newly patented medicine. But even at $20, their profits are substantial. It’s estimated that by waiving the patents, COVID-19 vaccines could be produced rapidly in vast numbers at around $2 per dose—thereby saving trillions of dollars, millions of lives, and preventing immeasurable social and economic distress.

But even during a deadly pandemic, within our unbridled market system it’s profit before people! While hundreds of millions are driven to hunger and homelessness and more than three million have died from COVID as of mid-April 2021, during the pandemic, the world’s 600 wealthiest people have increased their wealth by $1.3 trillion!

Epidemiologists calculate that at the current rate of profitable, patent-protected vaccine production—even with President Biden’s recent call for doubling the output—it could take 5 years to produce sufficient vaccine to immunize enough of the world population to reach the global herd immunity needed minimize the probability of far more dangerous mutations of the virus. To offset the likelihood of inestimable global disaster, the current “free market” policy of patent-and-profit protected production of vaccine is far too slow.

In the US, the economic and social COVID-related costs have been astronomical. As of mid-March 2021, the US government reportedly had spent more than $5.3 trillion … the vast majority for expenses within its own borders. Proportionately very little was spent to help meet the pandemic-related needs in other parts of the world. This self-centeredness is hazardously shortsighted, since the only way to definitively defang the COVID Monster is to achieve worldwide immunity. Public Citizen calculates that with a mere $25 billion (“mere” compared to the trillions already spent in relation to COVID), the US government could provide the 17 billion or so doses of vaccine needed to immunize the whole of humanity. In the long run, such foresight could save millions of lives and trillions of more dollars.

Yet another looming obstacle to achieving adequate herd immunity is “vaccine hesitancy”. Distrust of the COVID vaccines has become increasingly contagious in the US and Europe, but also in Mexico and many other countries, rich and poor. A growing legion of “anti-vaxxers” loudly opposes virtually all vaccines, claiming they are toxic, cause autism in children (repeatedly studied and disproven), or claim that vaccination is a totalitarian ploy to implant monitoring devices in everyone.

Clearly medical errors as well as abuses of authority, overt and covert, exist … and a reasonable degree of caution and distrust makes sense. Many medications occasionally do cause adverse reactions, some more than others. In the past, bad batches of inadequately-attenuated live vaccines have caused paralysis and deaths. Even effective vaccines in very rare instances provoke serious reactions. (e.g., “COVID-19 vaccine and Guillain-Barre Syndrome: Let’s Not Leap to Associations”) However, with most vaccines produced today, stringent precautions are taken. Risks tend to be minimal compared to the enormous benefits. (I give examples, below, of the life-saving impact of vaccines from my own observations in Mexico.) While the COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time, there is little doubt that great care has been taken with controlled studies and testing. Evidence points strongly to there being very low risk compared to enormous benefits, individually and potentially humanity-wide.