Covid-19 – are the vaccines enough?

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Covid-19 – are the vaccines enough?

The pandemic is again giving us the idea that technology can fix all our problems. It’s more complicated than that, says Richard Swift.


You could see how happy the media were when they gave us the news that the vaccines were now here to treat Covid-19. But the vaccine honeymoon is only here for a short time. It was always a political and economic game, with different players: nation states, drug companies, and health authorities both national and international. And then of course there are the desperate peoples of the world. There are many problems: vaccine nationalism, who gets the vaccine first, supply, when to have booster jabs, bad behaviour by Big Pharma – the big pharmaceutical companies, and new variants of the virus.

No surprise that the poor and racialized majority is suffering more than the rich minority, who can avoid the virus and get the jab.

People are saying that the vaccines are the answer rather than a useful tool along with bigger social changes. The need for these changes is now very clear with the pandemic: not enough money for healthcare; economic recovery plans that do not help inequality; and globalization, with its ‘just in time’ delivery that made problems for many vulnerable communities.

At the same time, new scientific ideas and vaccine production are leaving life and death decisions to Big Pharma. Universities with public money did much of the most useful vaccine and medical research, but the research was privatized and the results sold back to the public with a big profit. Traditionally vaccines have not been profitable for the pharmaceutical industry, as 79 per cent of the vaccine market before Covid-19 was poor and middle-income countries. Over one and a half million people in the Global South die every year because they cannot afford vaccines. Then there are the problems with our close interaction with animals in industrial agriculture and city development – the reason for most recent pandemics.

The idea that we can solve all our serious problems with technology is part of our culture and political economy.

Everything is OK?

Science allows different opinions. For example, environmental and marine biotechnologist Michael Huesemann and his activist-scientist wife Joyce Huesemann, who ten years ago wrote Techno-Fix: Why Technology Won’t Save Us or the Environment. Michael’s recent work is in growing algae as a biofuel to replace carbon.

Techno-Fix talks about the limits of technology in environmental problems, from climate change to chemical and industrial pollution. It also looks at the car as a big ecologically destructive part of modern life. The Huesemanns are against the idea that we can ‘save’ humanity through carbon-capture or solar radiation to reverse climate change. They and others believe these ideas will make us think that everything is OK and that we can continue a lifestyle with its carbon emission levels and chemical pollution.

A good example of this is Elon Musk and the electric car. His hope is that the electric car can allow us to continue to have cars at the centre of our lives. But the ecological footprint of the car involves wasteful infrastructure and manufacturing using unsustainable amounts of energy and materials. We are not thinking about other kinds of transport and organising life around decentralized and revitalized local communities.

Our new billionaires – Musk, Bezos, Branson – believe that this is where solutions to the world’s serious problems are. And why not? After all, it is technologies – from computers to electric cars and high-tech delivery systems – which have made them so very rich. They love the idea of space travel, as if we could somehow move our unsustainable growth across the universe. This takes us a very long way from the kind of degrowth we need if we are going to live without damage to the ecology.

A healthy world

When we compare space-travel with vaccines, we find vaccines are a very scientific success story. But they need to be part of an equal sharing economy and a good public-health system. On their own they will give us a part and unequal solution for a limited time. The WHO’s Mike Ryan says, ‘A vaccine is no guarantee of eliminating an infectious disease.’

He believes that we will need to learn to live with the virus, ‘We have to be in control of the virus, so the virus is not in control of us.’ He warns that another, more deadly, pandemic may come if we don’t think about the important health and other problems this pandemic has shown.

For in the end, new technologies are like meeting someone on a blind date. Are they going to be the love of your life or are they more interested in what’s in your bank account? Like most blind dates it has good and bad points. When we got DDT, it was all about eradicating mosquitoes and other pests – not poisoning our food and killing bird species. At least with vaccines there are fairly strict tests – not like new industrial chemicals or anti-pollution technologies that promise ‘clean’ coal. Big projects that play around with the climate are almost impossible to test or reverse. The problem with vaccines is they take our attention away from new policies we need to stop or help with future pandemics.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)