President Joe Biden has spoken passionately about the “clear and urgent choice” we face as citizens of an interconnected world, asking the United Nations General Assembly in September whether we will work together, or fail to meet the challenges of our time. The knee-jerk, nationalist reactions to the omicron variant suggest the latter, and the United States is no exception.
I wrote earlier this year that America under Biden hasn’t looked particularly cooperative, from vaccine hoarding and extended travel bans to the AUKUS submarine scandal. You’d be hard-pressed to create a better opportunity for Biden to prove that America is back at the table than leading a collective response to this new threat. So far, we’ve failed.
South Africa acted admirably when its scientists identified a potentially dangerous new strain of the coronavirus. Recognizing that it was not only a threat to the global community, but also a challenge one country couldn’t take on alone, the South African government and its scientists did exactly what the rest of the world would hope they would do. They notified the global community immediately and provided complete transparency and access to what they had discovered.
Contrast this with China’s denial and obstruction at the outset of the pandemic, which undermined the opportunity for an early, effective global response.
Citizens of the world owe South Africa a debt of gratitude. But instead, its decision to act for the greater good came at a high cost. At least 70 countries and territories, including the United States, imposed travel restrictions on the region, throwing up another roadblock to their fragile economic recovery. The lesson to governments worldwide: Your cooperation will cost you; look out for yourselves instead.
This lesson will reverberate far beyond this pandemic. Instead of incentivizing the cooperation we all need to meet these collective threats effectively, the international reaction to omicron encourages selfish and nationalist responses from any countries that may face a similar choice in the future. Notably, that international reaction was led by major democratic countries. Next week, Biden will convene an international Summit for Democracy to argue that democracies are best suited to address global challenges and lead the world. Now would be a good time to start demonstrating that they can.
If global leaders understand the need to act collectively to effectively address global problems, why do so many continue to fail to do so? Because it’s easier politically to make short-term decisions than long-term investments, regardless of the scale of long-term impact. See also: mitigating climate change.
The America-first response to omicron has few meaningful benefits, none of which outweigh its costs. The Biden administration claims the travel ban buys some time, but the strain had already been detected in more than a dozen countries outside southern Africa by the time our ban began. It was detected in California on Dec. 1.
Studies have shown that travel bans do little to stem the spread of the disease but are highly disruptive and costly. Beyond direct economic impact on South Africa, as well as trade and travel worldwide, travel bans have already led to the cancellation of critical multilateral meetings to discuss how to make vaccines more accessible worldwide, and have hindered South Africa’s efforts to learn more about omicron as canceled flights make it harder to access the materials needed for further research.
The biggest cost of this nationalist reaction, though, is its damage to future global cooperation. Next time, how likely is another country to raise alarm to the world, only to be the one to bear the brunt of the cost?
The travel ban was a bad but easy answer. It looked like the administration was being proactive, even if the real benefits were minimal. The harder, better decision would be to invest in global solutions. That might mean sending immediate support to South Africa and other affected countries to help set up large-scale, real-time testing at airports. This would enable travel to continue while taking meaningful steps to stop the spread.
It would require a bigger commitment to vaccinating the world. The U.S. government has been a generous vaccine donor, but far more doses are needed, as well as help in distribution and education. The U.S. government should press the pharmaceutical companies that it generously supported in developing vaccines to remove barriers to vaccine access elsewhere. Many developing countries have or are trying to buy vaccines too, but companies have sold mostly to wealthy countries that are hoarding the supply, with poorer countries left waiting and paying more per dose.
And then there is Biden’s commitment to intellectual property protection waivers so more countries can start producing direly needed vaccines that remain in short supply. He first voiced support for a World Trade Organization proposal to do so six months ago. It’s long past time for action.
Now would be a great time for the United States to demonstrate the global leadership that Biden has spoken about so eloquently but failed to live up to so far. It’s in our own selfish interest that he do so.
This article was originally published by Chicago Tribune.