When Barack Obama was in office, one of his favourite quotes was about the arc of moral history. It was long, meaning it would take time, but it would eventually, inevitably bend toward justice.
The famous quote has an interesting history of its own, a trajectory from Theodore Parker to Martin Luther King, and it has no doubt resonated with millions of people across the world who, though upset and unhappy with the present, still believed that the future would be better and brighter.
It provided hope, inspiration. But this linear understanding of time, as calming and comforting as it can be, was not devoid of problems. In attributing an agency to history, an inexorable progression, it blurred the urgency of engaging with the present moment. It made us forget the importance of being more connected with our fellow human beings and our planet. For the truth is, we do not know whether tomorrow will be any better than today.
Remembering that history is not necessarily progressive is crucial in understanding the gravity of the failures of our politicians in their pandemic response. The mistakes that are being made now will have a massive impact on the lives and livelihoods of future generations. As I am writing this piece, the world has surpassed the horrific milestone of four million recorded Covid-19 deaths. Between “numbers” and “numbness” there is more than rhythm and rhyme. As the official statistics become worse so does our level of apathy – lack of feeling or lack of action.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we were repeatedly told that this was The Great Equaliser – we were all in this mess together, regardless of ethnicity, class, race or gender. But, in reality, the tragedy hit some communities harder than others. Minorities have suffered disproportionately. Women, young people and immigrants will be paying a higher price throughout the coming economic decline and job losses.
Digital, class and regional discrepancies cut deep, even in the same city. An increasing number of children are going to bed hungry, let alone having access to proper online education. The pandemic has accelerated existing inequalities – both within and among nations.
Vaccine nationalism is one of the most stupid and dangerous types of modern tribalism, and yet it is where we have landed collectively today. At a time when we need international solidarity and global cooperation the most, we are witnessing the rise of the exact opposite. The number of people fully vaccinated in sub-Saharan Africa is less than one per cent. Populist demagogues keep telling us that by erecting higher walls we can keep the problems of “others” at bay. In a world so deeply interconnected and interdependent, this approach is as senseless and futile as preparing for the huge storm brewing on the horizon by planning to paint your house a brighter shade of blue.
If we learned anything from the pandemic, it is to revise and rethink our priorities, and to pay more attention to things that are not material, measurable, such as family, love, friendship, sisterhood, and connecting better with earth and nature.
Vaccine nationalism is driven by all kinds of wrong values: greed, hunger for power, extreme selfishness. Not only is it morally wrong; it is also extremely ill-judged and illogical from a pragmatic, rational point of view.
And if more people across the globe cannot be vaccinated in time, the virus will continue to mutate. To put it more bluntly, if the virus runs rampant among the poorer nations in the global south, even the vaccinated in wealthier nations won’t have enough immunity to the new variants. Meanwhile, a recent study commissioned by the ICC Research Foundation demonstrated that this kind of isolationism is going to cost the West trillions of dollars. Those who do not care about moral values might perhaps be incentivised by the economic consequences of tribalism.
We are at a major crossroads. This is the moment when we can and must ditch, once-and-for-all, hackneyed old dualities. For so long, populists have claimed that you are either “a patriot” or “a member of the globalist elite”. We do not have to be trapped in these either/or boxes, that incendiary rhetoric. For the truth is, you can care passionately about your identity, your ancestors and culture and love your country, and at the same time, remain attached to humankind and be a citizen of the world. The virus made it clear that populist dichotomies are hollow. In fighting against the pandemic, protecting others miles and continents away is not inseparable from self-protection; quite the opposite.
We as citizens of humankind need to engage in this moment and change the narrative. Pharmaceutical companies have a responsibility to share their technology with manufacturers in poorer nations. There has to be an inclusive, equitable strategy to protect the most vulnerable, the forgotten. Equally, all kinds of inequalities, including racial and gender, must be at the forefront of our post-pandemic recovery plans.
Perhaps we should stop using the term “vaccine nationalism”, for even that sounds like a positive thing to some. What we are going through is “vaccine chauvinism” – and we cannot expect the arc of history to correct the dire mistakes of today.
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist and political scientist