About six weeks ago, I wrote a piece urging that the United States take the lead in vaccinating the world. The case for doing so is even more compelling now.
Yes, we’ve been scratching and clawing at one another domestically over vaccine hesitancy, vaccine disinformation, vaccine mandates, masks, schools, and every other damn thing. It’s a disgrace that right-wing infotainers have made basic public health the enemy. Masks and vaccines are weak, they sneer, while simultaneously declaring that any effort to mandate them is communism.
But consider how the vaccinophobes would feel if vaccination became the next great American gift to humanity.
Let’s start with the selfish reasons to do this.
An American-led, global effort to vaccinate the whole planet would be fantastic for our reputation. The American brand has taken some hits since we presided over Pax Americana in the post-World War II era. The Iraq War, with its images of Abu Ghraib, did real damage. The election of Donald Trump and his truculent “America First” posturing further eroded our standing. The arrival of COVID-19 on the heels of this new American unsteadiness spurred even more suspicion of trade and international travel and led to what the World Bank called “viral protectionism.” While understandable in the first throes of a deadly disease, the long-term consequences of reduced trade would be ruinous—for the United States as much as for other nations. Contrary to the fantasies of some Trumpian protectionists, the U.S. is the world’s largest trading nation. Ninety-five percent of the world’s consumers live outside our borders, and we’ve been flourishing by catering to those consumers. A 2019 survey found that one in five of us is employed because of international trade.
So we want a healthy world that can buy our products and sell us things we need and desire. And we want to be perceived by people from Mexico to Malaysia as a benevolent power that looks out for its citizens first but also considers the well-being of humanity.
Further, as we learned in 2020 (if we didn’t understand it already), we cannot wall ourselves off from diseases that cross borders. If COVID variants are stewing in low-vaccination countries like India, Ukraine, and Nigeria, they can and will threaten the rest of the globe. The Centers for Disease Control now advises that the Delta variant, which arose in India, is more transmissible than the common cold, the 1918 Spanish flu, smallpox, Ebola, MERS, and SARS. It also makes people sicker than the original COVID.
Here’s another reason to vaccinate the world: As I noted in my earlier piece, our vaccines advertise the greatness of America. They work—unlike the inferior products produced by China and Russia. Innovation is one of our strengths, and what better advertisement can there be for an open, entrepreneurial system than a wonder drug that so successfully combats the deadly plague that has plunged the world into chaos?
In fact, these vaccines are such a miracle that we should all be on our knees thanking the genius doctors and scientists who brought them to us in record time. The previous record for developing a working vaccine was the one for mumps, which took four years. Four years!
What about the price? Nothing is free in life. It is estimated that the cost of vaccinating all 7.8 billion humans (assuming that the vaccine will eventually be approved for children) would be somewhere between $50 and $70 billion. That’s it. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the cost to the U.S. economy from COVID over 10 years will be $7.9 trillion. The U.S. government spent $5.3 trillion (so far) to mitigate the pandemic’s effects. These sums do not include the emotional cost of more than 600,000 lives lost, the fatherless and motherless children, nor the thousands suffering “long-haul COVID.” It does not include the social and emotional cost of more than a year of lost schooling, and the forfeited potential advancement of millions of women who left the labor force.
Yes, $50 to $70 billion is a lot of money, but it’s dirt cheap compared with the costs of COVID. Democrats and Republicans are currently considering a $1 trillion infrastructure bill, which many consider a worthy investment. Fine, but the problems the infrastructure bill addresses are long-term, they are not emergencies. COVID remains an emergency.
Consider that the next variant may be even worse than Delta. It may be able to defeat the vaccines—though the scientists think they would be able to tweak them in response. Still, there are other frightening possibilities. The next variant, rather than mostly sparing the young as the current iteration does, might target them as the 1918 flu did. It is no disrespect to the old (I’m getting there myself) to say that that would be infinitely worse.
Though we can easily afford the cost of vaccinating the world, we really wouldn’t need to shoulder the whole burden ourselves. This would be a golden opportunity for American leadership. If Biden led an effort by the wealthy nations of the world, he would surely find willing partners. In fact, it would play to his strengths as someone who listens, extends a hand across the aisle, and so on. He could request an emergency session of the G20 to consider this initiative.
Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton were fond of quoting Alexis de Tocqueville to the effect that “America is great because she is good. Should she ever cease to be good, she will cease to be great.” Alas, like so many famous quotations, this one is made up. But it’s not a stretch to suggest that the reason the fake quote resonated was that it captured an aspiration. For all of our many flaws, there is something in the American soul that longs for righteousness, that is willing to undertake burdens, that feels a sense of mission to lift up a battered world. From Washington’s Farewell address, to the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Americans have always seen our destiny as something higher than becoming just another flag on the map.
Vaccinating the world is within our scope, and though it would redound to our benefit as much as anyone’s, it would nevertheless be an act of vision and even nobility. It would honor our forebears and inspire our descendants.