Before coronavirus, there were Ebola, SARS, and MERS. Even before that there was Spanish flu. But way way before that the world suffered for centuries from another virus called variola. Better known as smallpox, the earliest documented trace of the virus was found in three Egyptian mummies that are more than 2,500 years old. Forty years ago, after the loss of countless lives, the world finally eliminated the variola virus from the face of the earth, ending the scourge of smallpox.
Bangladesh is indelibly linked to this historic triumph. In 1976, Rahima Banu, a three-year-old girl from Kuralia, Bhola, was identified as the last person known to have acquired the virus naturally. Another little girl from the same village, 8-year-old Bilkisunnesa, reported the case to a search team that had gone from house to house to make sure that no one else was infected. For her courage and wits, Bilkis was honored with a Tk 250 award.
Four years later, on 8 May 1980, the world leaders who had gathered in Geneva at the World Health Assembly declared, “the world and all its peoples have won freedom from smallpox”.
It wasn’t easy
The cure against smallpox was a vaccine that was first developed in 1796 by British doctor Edward Jenner. Later, in the 1890s, a more formal vaccine was developed by a British bacteriologist, Sydney Coperman. Within the next fifty years or so, much of Europe and North America rid themselves of smallpox, but the rest of the world continued to suffer from the contagion. The curse was finally broken after WHO led a coordinated global fight that lasted well over a decade. These were the years of intense competition between the West and the East, between USA and USSR. Yet, to fight a common enemy, they overcame their differences and joined hands.
Like smallpox, COVID-19 is a global pandemic, and the only way we will beat it is by getting together. Unfortunately, instead of coming together, the countries of the world have chosen to isolate themselves under a nationalistic cloak. WHO, the UN body that had led the fight against smallpox, has been sidelined, leaving the countries of the world without a clear roadmap to defeat COVID-19.
Over the past decade or so, the world has increasingly turned rightward, putting in power those leaders who prefer promoting and protecting national interest above global. This brand of nationalism, often defined by race, ethnicity, and religion, has pushed nations – even those who have benefited most from globalization – to look inward and to oppose multilateralism. Reject globalism, embrace nationalism, advised President Trump last year at the United Nations.
When COVId-19 burst upon the global scene – originating in China and spreading quickly to the rest of the world – the first impulse among national leaders was to shut their borders and hold on to every little medical supply they could muster for their own use. Western nations imposed strict protectionist rules, barring smaller countries to benefit from global trades. Rich countries quickly moved to buy up the scarce personal protective gear and other supplies and ban the export of their own products outside. The US even undertook an elaborate plan to push a German biotech company to move its research work out of Berlin to USA.
We all know the key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic is a vaccine, the development of which requires billions of dollars. Rich countries are already in a race to outwit each other in their search for a vaccine. How much would such a vaccine cost once it is marketed? Probably thousands of dollars, way too expensive for poorer countries to obtain it for their cash strapped citizens. More importantly, the world will need an enormous amount of vaccine to cover all its citizens. Unless the current logic of “Me First” is reversed, much of the world is likely to remain with no vaccine.
Sensible people have called this approach suicidal. This virus knows no borders and no matter how many walls we build, we can’t stop the virus from traveling from one place to another. To rid one country of the scourge, we need to get rid of it everywhere.
And then there is the problem of economic devastation now gripping much of the world. If the pandemic continues, the situation will only grow worse. Sooner or later, the richer countries will recover, either on their own (like in the US) or through collective efforts (like in the European Union). No such luck for poorer nations. Already hard hit by global disparity in trade and wealth distribution, the pandemic is likely to worsen their ability to fight poverty. The United Nations has warned, the accumulated devastation – from health to education to job creation – could decimate the economies of the developing world.
If we are serious about ending the pandemic, we need to ensure the availability of a future vaccine to all nations as quickly as possible. The richer nations must also draw up a plan to marshal enough resources to prevent the wholesale economic collapse of the developing countries.
We often say the world is a global village, and like in any village, our prosperity depends on each other. Now is the time to remember this axiom and act. Forty years ago, the world had come together to beat smallpox. It needs to come together now to beat COVID-19.
The writer is a journalist and author based in New York.