Covid Vaccine Politics, Politricks, Anti-vaxxer-Anti-masker Fanatics, and Countdown to the Olympics

©Allison Y. Gibbons. PH.D

May 31, 2021

Early comparisons between the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic and the 1918 Influenza pandemic prompted scientists to warn that we would need at least 3 years to gain control over the virus.  We are fifteen months in, close to half-way there, with global deaths at three million, five hundred and sixty thousand souls, and counting.  Historical evidence is on the side of the contagious disease experts who remind all that vaccination is our best weapon, but until we achieve herd immunity, mask wearing should continue since Covid-19 is now known to be airborne.  But conventional wisdom has no voice in 2021 where human beings have gotten accustomed to lightning-fast accomplishments. Common reaction seems to be that the world cannot expect its 21st century populations to put their life on hold for 3 years. At least not in the more advanced nations accustomed to life as they want it.

The outcry is that one year of deprivations was enough.  People are throwing caution to the wind under the guise of freedom and independence, despite the fact that no country to date has achieved herd immunity with the coveted 80% vaccinations.  Such country-focused achievement does not matter anyway until the world has achieved an average level of herd immunity, since we are talking of a pandemic, not an isolated contagion. Rates of full vaccination vary from 60% in UK and Israel, to 50% in US and Canada, 30% in Italy and France and down to 4% in New Zealand, 2% in Australia and South Africa and 0-1% in many smaller countries.  The actual global average for vaccinations remain at an overall 5.3% in May 2021.  Notwithstanding this paltry figure, international travel is defiantly picking up speed again with airlines and cruise ship companies expressing satisfaction with the rise in summer bookings to all corners of the globe and back.

The Inconsistencies in Vaccine Politics

People’s impatience with the pandemic has transferred to a matching annoyance at Science, the WHO, and the CDC. In a seeming effort to appease citizens and leaders, our medical guardians are now inviting further exasperation with seemingly contradictory guidelines. Wear your mask! You no longer need to wear a mask! Return to normal! Return to 2020 Covid-19 precautions!  The real explanation for the inconsistency is that the Virus itself is creating its own path of infections, surges and spikes, along with emerging mutations and variations.  Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan were much touted early success stories only to have such victory unraveled as they now scramble to vaccinate their populations, their rate so far still below 5%.  

Ability to pay for vaccines is still a hindrance. Costs vary wildly from US $4 per dose to US$82 per dose with two doses required per individual. Poor countries are legitimately complaining about price gouging by vaccine suppliers.  Facts show erratic pricing, including bait and switch tactics where orders are being withheld because of price changes mid- stream.  Also, there are "creative" mark-ups or mark-downs based on real country-to-country politics depending on which country is friendly to another or which country should be punished for past or present grudges of disloyalty, and other considerations unrelated to a raging pandemic. 

Questions also still remain about how long immunity will last for the vaccinated.  Dr. Ozlem Tureci, CMO of Pfizer-BioNTech, in a recent CNBC interview was already pushing for an annual booster.  The CDC shrugged off the statement as an affront to its authority, responding that such a decision does not rest with the vaccine maker.  An understandable straight-shooting comment has come from Dr. Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research at a recent virtual press conference” “We’re gonna have to figure it out as we go.”

Politricks – The Dirty Tricks of Policy-makers

While the US is reporting a general fall in cases as a whole, at least nine known states are experiencing a rise in cases and deaths. Among the latter is Florida where instead of a cautionary tale, the state’s governor led the support for a law which bans cruise ships docking in any Florida port from asking for proof of vaccination for passengers who embark in Florida. Cruise ship companies react at the targeted unfairness to themselves, their employees and passengers, especially considering that the industry was negatively affected by the pandemic through on-board mass infections as well as by the global lockdowns for a full year. The bottom line is, you set sail at your own risk if you choose a cruise ship that docks anywhere in Florida. 

A different governor in the state of Ohio, concerned about the state’s low rate of vaccinations, established a Vax-A-Million lottery. To qualify for the weekly million-dollar single-winner lottery-draw you have to be a vaccine newcomer.  Thousands responded, making it a bit of a sad triumph over vaccine hesitancy.  The ‘Play for Pay’ approach is a revelation of the failure to teach lessons in civic responsibility in elementary and high schools. Money is usually a great motivator, but did anyone think of a more modest incentive such as a single-use restaurant gift- card for each person, rather than crowning one person a millionaire for getting vaccinated?  No one would sneeze at a free restaurant meal.  Additionally, a restaurant campaign would serve a dual purpose by boosting the local food industry hard hit by the pandemic. Regardless, the states of California and South Carolina plan to copy the Vax-A-Million lottery idea.  Creative thinking apparently not required. 

Examining the payout from a different angle, the 3 million dollars committed by Ohio so far could charitably have supplied vaccines for the adult populations of at least one dozen smaller and poorer countries using the Oxford-Astra-Zeneca vaccine at its low standard cost of $4 per dose. COVAX, the global organization for fair and equitable access to vaccines, would have appreciated the donation on behalf of those countries.  Such an action might have served as a better public example to the people of Ohio as regards the real purpose of vaccinations – an act of protection for the good of All.

Anti-vaxxer and-Anti-masker Fanatics Are Not on Vacation

Meanwhile, anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers have not taken a vacation. In California, another state with a recent spike in Covid infections and deaths, one café owner decided to offer a discount of 50% for customers who threw their facemasks in the trash-bin he provided for the purpose. At the same time, he charged customers who decided to wear their mask an additional $5.00 to dine at his establishment.  He shared his conviction that the face-mask mandate in 2020 caused collateral damage to businesses like his.  For some, it is still a challenge to accept the pandemic itself as a real factor in their lives, lifestyles, and livelihoods.

Continuing in the month of May, in the state of Tennessee, a woman was arrested after she drove her vehicle at top speed through a tent that was set up as a vaccination clinic in a location convenient to the public. She claims it was a protest against coronavirus vaccines which she sees as a conspiracy to cause harm to innocent people. Meanwhile the CDC records show Tennessee has among the lowest vaccination rates compared to the rest of the US, 23.4% at the end of April 2021.  Vaccines are available for all adults in the US to the point where the US has been accused of hoarding vaccines while many other countries have none.

The Upcoming 2021 Olympics – To Be or Not to Be?

Japan, the site of the 2021 Olympics, has been slow as a country to tackle the pandemic, despite being an advanced economy.  Millions of dollars and at least eight years of time went into planning for the Tokyo Olympics which were postponed back in March 2020.  The assumption then was that all would be well by March 2021, a full year after the pandemic was declared. The time of reckoning has arrived. The Tokyo Olympics are currently on schedule to start on July 23, its success depending on the full participation from athletes from more than 100 countries. But late May 2021 has brought troubling news. In the US – the CDC has issued a new travel advisory stating “Travelers should avoid all travel to Japan.”   At this point in time, as information to the rest of the world, WHO lists Japan as Level 4 – a high rate of pandemic risk. Japan itself mandated its third complete lockdown for 2021 due to a spike in Covid-19 cases and deaths. 

Tokyo is the largest urban economy and the most populous city in the world. Its high density of population is the ideal environment for an airborne virus to spread quickly, facts which spur on Japanese medical specialists and civic leaders to demand that the Olympics be postponed indefinitely. On the other hand, The US Olympic Committee, as well as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government are of opposite mind. Their mantra is: Let the Games begin.  Time will tell how successful the games are from Japan’s perspective. Many countries are skeptical about the risk being taken by the world’s best athletes. Japan swears the Games will be safe for everyone.  If the Games go on, the report will be known to all the world soon enough, by the time the closing ceremonies of the Olympics take place on August 08, 2021.  Athletes have been preparing and sacrificing for at least five years - some, all their lives thus far.  Understandably, they crave their day in the spotlight.  But at what cost? The jury is still out.  Many athletes and their trainers are accepting of Japan's promise of protection.  If you are a family member or a fan, you are most likely measuring your enthusiasm. You will rejoice at the feel-good stories and spectacles of achievement if the athletes, supporters and the various countries' entourages make it safely through the pandemic.  It's OK to want the happy ending.