Why capitalism made it impossible to eradicate Covid

I thought this was an important argument by James Meadway about how international competition in a global capitalist economy made Zero Covid strategies untenable for individual states. In the link he talks about China’s sustained commitment to this strategy in spite of this competitive dynamic is likely to have significant longer-term consequences for the global economy. He suggests arguments about the international distribution of vaccines and protective border controls have the “early look of becoming the sort of rows that fundamentally reshape the terrain on which politics is conducted”:

I’ve argued in the past that a Zero Covid setting is exceptionally hard for any government to sustain over any period of time in a global capitalist economy. Because Zero Covid has a domestic cost – reduced short-run economic growth and the direct expenses of the surveillance and quarantine – it is hard for a country to commit to it over time. If other countries pursue Zero Covid, this is a gain for your own country since the prevalence of covid (with all the dangers of outbreaks, future mutations, and so on) are reduced as a result of someone else’s efforts. But that wipes out the incentive to push for Zero Covid, since every country can hope to free-ride on someone else’s eradication efforts. A world where all or even most countries pursue Zero Covid is, as result, highly unlikely. The tendency will be towards no countries pursuing Zero Covid policies.

There is a similar, but opposite problem with vaccination: vaccination is costly, but hands a competitive advantage to a country that can vaccinate its population. (Look, for instance, at the recent revision by the OECD to its forecasts for UK growth – a result, it says, of the speedy vaccination programme there). There is a universal public good in making vaccination as widespread as possible, but since the benefits of doing so accumulate to everyone, there are few incentives for countries to deliver vaccination beyond their own borders. As a result of these two co-ordination failures, eradication will not be sustained as a policy across the globe, and capitalism will undersupply vaccines globally, even as vaccine surpluses build up in richer countries.

Given the existence of capitalism, eradication of covid will not happen and vaccination will be inefficient. The epidemiological outcome is that covid will become universally prevalent in the human population – the chance to contain it, once the disease hit our global capitalist economy back in early 2020, is no longer there. We will end up with an endemic version of the virus, shaped by the society we have built and its various failures.

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