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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 19-12-2020 08:52

From Vladimir with love

Health experts employed by international organisations complain that the rich countries have gone nationalistic and are hogging all the most promising vaccines which are being developed.

Alberto Fernández must have thought he was in luck when Cristina Fernández de Kirchner offered him the country’s top job, something he had never dreamed of aspiring to, but what he got was a Faustian bargain which has turned out to be rather less advantageous than he could have imagined.

Since becoming president, luck has not been on Alberto’s side. Until just a few days ago, he was getting ready to launch a large-scale vaccination programme which he thought would not only save several thousand people from a premature death but would also enable him to recoup much of the prestige he had lost in recent months because of his constant shilly-shallying and his obsequious willingness to let Cristina tell him what to do. But then someone came along and pointed out that the Russian vaccine he had in mind was unsuitable for the older folk government members had insisted would be among the first to receive a shot. Unfortunately for Alberto, the person who said this was not some North American journalist or epidemiologist he could accuse of being in the pay of Big Pharma but none other than Vladimir Putin.

Putin, who is 68 and likes to make out he is a super-fit athlete, said in a press conference that for now he would not be taking the Sputnik V vaccine because he had been told that, given his age, it would be better for him to wait a bit longer until something more reliable came along.

Were the coronavirus less selective when it comes to choosing its victims, a vaccine that tended to be less effective when applied to older people would still be more than welcome, but it so happens that, according to all the available statistics, healthy men and women who are sixty or under have little to fear. So what use would be a vaccine which, its makers warn, could do little to help anyone who is older than sixty or is already suffering from some dangerous ailment? Not much, one might say, though presumably if it worked well enough for most of the world’s population it would encourage “herd immunity” and by so doing reduce the risks run by the aged and infirm.

For Alberto, who desperately wanted to start vaccinating “frontline” medics, other “essential” workers and the elderly with the Russian concoction before the year ended, Putin’s offhand remarks could hardly have come at a worse moment. Some official spokesmen, among them Buenos Aires Province’s Health Minister Daniel Gollán, claimed that the translators had got it badly wrong, others insisted that despite Putin’s misgivings the government would go ahead with its plans anyway and soon begin vaccinating everybody within reach. They can only pray that the Russian scientists, whose international reputation is high, somehow manage to iron out the remaining difficulties in time to save Argentina from yet another debacle. Unless they do so in a convincing fashion, many, perhaps most, people could refuse to go anywhere near needle-brandishing doctors or nurses.

Public confidence in the Kirchnerite government’s ability to minimise the damage done by the killer virus has gone steadily downhill since March, when most people warmly applauded the sudden decision to confine most of them to quarters and make it hard for Argentines stranded abroad to return home. Such measures made a mess of an economy which was already in deep trouble, had a terrible impact on people’s lives and wrought havoc to the prospects facing millions of youngsters by depriving them of a chance to acquire an education, but they did not prevent the death toll from climbing above 40 thousand, with Buenos Aires Province providing more than half of the victims.

Can the disaster be blamed squarely on the national government? Though many clearly think so and enjoy laughing at the contradictions and volte-faces official spokespeople go in for, Alberto’s government is far from being the only one which is in the stocks and getting pelted with abuse for allegedly mishandling its country’s share of the worldwide pandemic. Some, among them Boris Johnson’s in the UK and Donald Trump’s in the US, are accused of waiting too long and then waffling before taking action. As for Alberto’s, many now say it was far too tough at the beginning with the result that people got tired of the restrictions he imposed and then refused to take any notice of them after they had become really necessary.

Would everything have gone better if, here and elsewhere, matters had been left to opposition politicians and their supporters in the press? There is no reason to think so. Throughout the world, governments of all kinds have had to balance the recommendations made by hawkish health experts who would like to make just about everyone stay where they are for the duration and those who worry more about the economic and social consequences the prolonged lockdowns are having.

Has any government got things right? Until not that long ago, Angela Merkel’s coalition was being credited with Germany’s relative success in keeping the virus at bay, but of late casualties there have been mounting at an even faster rate than elsewhere in Europe. Perhaps Asian countries such as China, where it all started, as well as Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, have done better thanks to all that social discipline combined with high tech. Needless to say, their performance is of little comfort to those living in other places which, one might say, are by nature more anarchic and in any case have far fewer technological resources.

Health experts employed by international organisations complain that the rich countries have gone nationalistic and are hogging all the most promising vaccines which are being developed. They point out that the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, members of the European Union, Japan, and so on, already have more than enough to give all their inhabitants as many doses as they may require. This was bound to happen. Another difference is that the rich developed countries are in a position to distribute and use vaccines such as the highly expensive Pfizer one, which is already being deployed in the UK and North America, that have to be kept at an extremely low temperature.

Even in well-off parts of the world, ensuring that Pfizer ́s product remains in deep freeze until just before use is proving difficult. In Argentina and most other countries, the logistical problems involved, plus the steep financial costs, mean that most people will have to wait until a more user-friendly and much cheaper vaccine, which could be an improved version of Sputnik V, the Oxford-AstraZeneca one which resembles it or something that has yet to catch the public eye, is rubber-stamped by the appropriate authorities. Until that happens, we shall have to rely on masks, social-distancing and a degree of personal hygiene that is normal in Japan but is thought rather excessive elsewhere.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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