Hope on the horizon
There will be a time, hopefully in the not too distant future, when this crisis is over, to have the opportunity for real scrutiny of how governments led us through this pandemic. And there is no doubt, because the evidence already exists in the tragedy of the care homes, in the exponential deaths among minorities, in the tanking of the economy, in the rise in mental health issues and in the widening chasm of all forms of global inequity, that there will be some hellish details contained within that exploration of facts.
Political heads may roll, painful scabs will be reopened, grieving could begin all over again and there will be a gut-wrenching sense of the lives we could have saved, if only…
Regrets, there’ll be a few. Recriminations, there’ll be many.
This has been a unique time for us all. In some ways, a precious time. A time of enforced captivity. A time of deep reflection, re-evaluation, and a time to reassess who we are and who we want to be.
But every day has brought a fresh worry, a hardship, a sadness to be overcome. That now-familiar weariness that comes with the interrupted sleep and the burden of just trying to carry on, keep a business going, connect with family, pay the bills and somehow retain a level of joy, however tiny that might sometimes feel, it’s exhausting.
It’s also been a terrifying, isolating and vulnerable time. It has allowed for a level of introspection that has brought its own nightmares. And a brutal separation from loved ones has been raw and will be hard to heal. But one thing has seemed clear amid the madness and that is that the world and how we live in it needs to change.
And right now, hopes of a vaccine by Christmas give us a tangible reason to dream of that better future.
And while I felt a rare sense of optimism in the gloom that has hung heavy over 2020 with the news that a vaccine was on its way, it was quickly tempered by a realisation, evident in the immediate changing fortunes of stocks and shares, that all talk of ‘building back better’, of expanding on that sense of cooperation and solidarity, of a levelling out of mankind and of creating a world that is fairer, nicer and more equitable was likely just wishful thinking.
Global stocks surged to record numbers after Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their vaccine was 90 per cent effective in clinical trials. Hope was injected into global economies and the pound signs started spinning.
Many of the most pronounced wins were for companies most affected by the restrictions introduced to fight the virus. Airlines’ share prices surged, Rolls-Royce saw its share price double and #summerholidays was trending on Twitter.
Cinema chains, cruise lines and pharmaceutical companies all saw an uptick, while digital services, food delivery companies and online retailers saw a slight dip from their superlative highs during lockdown. It was as if the whole narrative of the pandemic was being played out on the screens of the stock exchange.
And how sharp was that realisation that if inequality is baked into even the price and availability of the vaccine, then the ambition to change would be lost. And quickly.
The lion’s share of the potential Pfizer vaccine is already claimed by high-income nations. We’ve pre-booked. The UK has 40 million doses on order. In effect, we’ve paid upfront for a vaccine that is still to come and with an eye-watering bill that simply puts countries like ours at the front of the queue and leaves large swathes of the world’s population unprotected.
Faced with an existential threat to humanity and it’s still profit, not people, that is to the fore. There is no universality when it comes to saving the world. No simple generosity of spirit or a sense of us all being in this together. It’s dog eat dog, and nothing looks set to change.
Pfizer and BioNTech are forecast to make nearly £10bn in the coming year from their vaccine. And while many may find profiteering from a global health crisis that threatened civilisation as, ironically, barbaric, Pfizer’s CEO has dismissed that critique as “radical”.
COVID-19 has exposed discrimination, shone a light on inequality, created divisions and meant a potential legacy of mass unemployment, austerity and a lost generation. Why is it absurd then to question the economics behind a ‘cure’?
One of the transformational opportunities of this terrible time has been the prospect of creating a different world, a world where a vaccine isn’t produced for profit and rationed out depending on the wealth of a nation or where there is a league table of priority rooted in false measurements of human value. Where mink isn’t bred to cloak the vain shoulders of the rich or to create false eyelashes for wealthy women who are more comfortable in the skin of a captive animal than in their own, but where the mink then becomes a spreader of the virus. Where children don’t go to bed hungry while rich people pay out for extravagantly priced coffee beans that have, ironically, passed through the digestive system of a small mammal once held responsible for SARS or where animal delicacies, sold in so-called wet markets, literally do become the death of us all.
Irony has hung heavy during this pandemic, but it’s a time to tear up the old rule book and do things differently.
But for now, while we still have to live with the virus, and people remain sick and dying, this is not a time to loosen restrictions, have false hope or go back to things as they were. That time, that normal, has passed.