Public health officials were frantically sending out warnings about the rise of a new H1N1 swine flu in the early spring of 2009.
Early reports revealed the virus was extremely contagious and dangerous for people under the age of 60.
On July 14, Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO) warned the public of the virus, declaring it to be “entirely new and highly contagious.”
She went on to admonish affluent countries for buying up a disproportionate amount of vaccines and antivirals.
In the middle of the pandemic, many Western countries were left with excess vaccines.
The U.S. ordered 251 million doses but only distributed 160 million, and other Western countries like Germany were attempting to cancel half of their original orders while France was trying to sell their excess stockpile to poor counties.
Unfortunately, by the time this redistribution took place, the pandemic was coming to an end. The unfair hoarding of vaccines by rich countries contributed to the severity of the pandemic in less affluent nations.
This type of stockpiling creates distribution issues such that the hardest hit areas cannot get needed supplies.
It creates a supply and demand that raises the price of vaccines, antivirals and medical supplies. These price hicks ultimately add insult to injury for counties that could barely afford supplies during nonpandemic years.
Today, we are watching vaccines being developed at lightning speeds, and most of the 2009 manufacturing problems are not present. Unfortunately, many Western countries are following the same path they did in 2009.
For example, the June 29 press statement of the Department of Health and Human Services declared the Trump administration secured 100% of the antiviral drug Remdesivir developed by Gilead for the month of July and 90% for the months of August and September.
The U.S. is not alone in ordering as many vaccines as they can get for their citizens. Most of Western Europe has participated as well.
Many may be asking what is wrong with this. The U.S. and Western Europe did take the risk and fund the development of potential vaccines, so should not they have a right to be first in line?
This line of argument makes sense at first glance. The problem with this argument is it is too simplistic.
Pandemics are tricky things. They remind us we are not in control of the universe, that random things can happen and that we cannot live in isolation. What happens to one of us can and frequently happens to all of us.
Simply having enough vaccinations for one’s citizens may not actually protect them from future manifestations of the disease. It is extremely difficult to predict how a virus will spread on a global scale.
In addition, viruses have a tendency to mutate and generate new viral strains. This means if a virus like COVID-19 flourishes anywhere, it potentially can spread everywhere again.
Having an excessive stockpile of vaccines and antivirals might protect one’s citizens this season but what happens next year?
Therefore, it would behoove rich countries to rethink the hoarding of medical supplies.
While it may feel like public officials are protecting their citizens, in the long run they may not be protecting them at all.
A better use of resources might be to focus upon the hardest hit countries or the latest hot spots to avoid regional or global recurrences.
The focus should be on controlling the global spread of the virus until it either dies out or drug manufactures can produce enough resources for the world.
While this may look like an altruistic approach to fighting COVID-19, it is really rooted in classic egoistic thinking of theorists like Ayn Rand.
If the goal is to protect one’s self and citizens, then which is the best approach: stockpiling vaccines or investing in a global fight? The latter might actually generate a safer world by defeating the virus once and for all.
From a classical Christian perspective, ensuring that less affluent countries have access to the medications and vaccines they need to fight COVID-19 is simply the right thing to do. It is basic Christian charity.
Impoverished countries have as much a right to medication and health care as the rest of the world.
Just like in previous global crises, the U.S. and Western Europe need to step up and help the hardest hit countries mount an effective defense.
Yet, this moral perspective is still not as simple as it sounds. Altruism asks us to do more than simply be generous. We need to take our personal health seriously.
Why? It is only by taking the steps to protect ourselves that we can ensure our ability to help others.
For instance, if the U.S. were to give all of its health care resources away, then the long term negative economic effects would prevent us from continuing to fight or even joining future fights.
Whether for altruistic or egoistic motives, it would be wise for us to call upon our government leaders and public health officials to look seriously at the problems arising from hoarding medical resources needed for a global fight.
Hoarding health care resources is futile. It is like trying to fight a world war while never moving tanks, planes, troops or artillery outside one’s own boarders.
We need a balanced approach to ensure all nations are cared for in this global fight against COVID-19.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.