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Where have all the statesmen gone?

Who has handled the COVID pandemic well? Lockdowns, masking and social
distancing to limit the spread of infection have been our daily experience since early
2020. Effective treatment can limit the death rate. And the most likely exit from the
pandemic is through vaccination. All three metrics – infections, deaths and
vaccination – need to be factored by population to compare one country with
another. So all data in this article is per million population as of 1st August, 2021.
Our final goal must be a return to normalcy in our lives with acceptable levels of risk.

States vary enormously in their death rates. Places that acted early and hard such
as Australia (death rate, 36 per million) and Taiwan (33) did so much better than the
United States (1850), Brazil (2620) and the UK (1915). But states also vary
enormously in how quickly they have vaccinated their populations. The US, UK,
Israel, UAE and now much of Europe have well over half their population fully
vaccinated. East and South-East Asia, meanwhile, have fumbled with getting shots
into arms. Most high vaccination countries seem to also have high death rates.
And very few places with low death rates have high vaccination rates.

Where do we go from here?
What should a country with a high death rate do? Vaccinate like mad. In India’s
case, this should be the government’s number one priority. It would show in the
most capable people in government running the vaccination campaign, orders in
place for vaccines (both domestic and international) for a multiple of our population
(my understanding is that we are still only halfway there), and a daily review of
progress at the highest level of government. It is our only chance of avoiding a repat
of our catastrophic second wave. The government has repeatedly committed full
vaccination by the end of the year, but we are achieving only half the rate that
achieving this goal demands. Our ambition and effectiveness must match the
immensity of the task.

What should a country with a low death rate do? Vaccinate like mad. Oscar Wilde
once said there was this world, and then there was the next, and then there was

New Zealand. But surely even New Zealand has some intention of rejoining the
world. Australia has just won the bid to host the 2032 Olympics in Brisbane; when I
saw the news report, my comment was that I hoped it would be open by then.
Administering just 18 and 24 per cent of the shots needed in such rich countries with
tiny populations and effective public health systems should be a national disgrace.
Singapore was my favourite positive exception. It both effectively controlled
infections/deaths and has been running an effective vaccination programme, fully
covering over 65 per cent of the population. Three ministers proposed in the Straits
Times in July that COVID be treated as endemic, to be lived with and handled,
instead of a pandemic to be controlled. Track deaths and critical care capacity
rather than infections, they said. Two weeks later, reacting solely to a rise in
infections, severe restrictions on movement were reimposed. (There has since been
some relaxation.)
The other outlier in combining a control of infections with high vaccination is China.
But after foisting the virus on the world in the first place and giving it its greatest
health challenge in a century, I struggle to consider it a model for anything.
Needed: Global leadership
So as of August 2021, my answer to the question “who has handled the pandemic
well?” is “no one”. What must we do to have a different answer by the end of this
calendar year? Three things: vaccination, international coordination of a return to
normalcy, and statesmanship to carry our fellow citizens along with us.
Vaccination: As many have said, we are safe only when we are all safe. The
longer we delay immunising the world, the greater the opportunity for the virus to
mutate and breakthrough the immunity vaccines provide. As the Economist correctly
pointed out, the G7 in its recent meeting signally failed both morally and
economically in delivering a plan to vaccinate all 7 billion people in the world now.
The economic return to vaccination is so huge it isn’t worth calculating. The cost of
fully vaccinating India is less than half the fall in just one tax (GST) in just one month
(April 2020). It would seem to be a no-brainer – except for the many brains that
seem to miss it! When President Biden invited the leaders of Japan, Australia and
India to the Quad Summit in March, one of the key initiatives was a vaccination

programme for much of Asia: the US would provide the technology for vaccines,
India would make them, and Japan and Australia would pay for them. Why have we
heard nothing further since? What has happened in the three months since a senior
official made a trip to the USA apparently specifically to obtain vaccines for us? Yes,
things take time, but the longer we delay and fumble, the more we keep the world at
risk.
Coordinated opening up will take several moves. Start with agreed travel norms.
Every country seems to have its own requirements, instead of reflecting international
understanding of health needs. Vaccine passports have been proposed to bring
about a more agreed approach. Why is India opposing this sensible idea? Why is
the USA open to travel from Colombia and Thailand but not Europe or India, when
the current infection rates say the opposite makes sense? Flight restrictions must be
removed so airlines can decide for themselves where to fly to, and with what
capacity. Why is India one of the only countries in the world not to have restored
normal air travel arrangements? Seventeen months after restrictions were imposed,
we continue with so-called “bubble arrangements” with individual countries. Is this
for health reasons? Or to protect Air India from competition? Opening the UK up
apparently went beyond what people wanted – polls said 60 per cent were against it.
But it has opened up only domestically, so is it aiming to catch up with the normal life
and movement of Europe or the isolated existence of Australia? Singapore needs to
turn the forward-looking proposal of its ministers last month into actual policy. It is
otherwise placing at risk a major source of its prosperity if expats relocate
themselves and their businesses to countries that are more hospitable to travel.
Statesmanship: In my book, a statesman is a political leader who does the right
thing even if it isn’t immediately popular. When countries face crises, they need their
leaders to act in the national interest that only later proves to be right. An
international crisis of the magnitude of our global health pandemic requires that
leaders act in the wider interest of humanity. It is high time we did.