Quarantine Journal — It’s Human Nature

TL;DR: we still suck! As a species…

Day “I can’t even remember” of “what seems like forever”. The pandemic rages on, uncontested. It feels there’s no end in sight. Each piece of good news is followed almost instantly by a bad one. Like we’re caught in a weird, extremely repetitive dance: one step forward, one step back. Step forward, step back. Forward, back…all of humanity moving together to the tune of the most boring dubstep song ever.

Photo by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

I am trying to adapt. To find ways to cope. To find some ounce of joy hidden somewhere. Sometimes I find it. Sometimes I don’t. This time, I was lucky. I get to tell others they were wrong. That always brings me joy. It’s petty, stupid, and toxic. But enjoyable and addictive. Kind of like smoking! I told you so!

This time, I was lucky. I get to tell others they were wrong. That always brings me joy.

Some months ago I was bombarded with a stream of unfounded optimism. I wrote about it at the time. I am not a pessimist. I like to think of myself as an informed optimist. The two just happen to coincide. Back to the story, some guy wrote a poem called The Great Realisation, about how 2020 will be an inflection point in our collective history. How after the pandemic we’ll come out better, more loving, more caring. More considerate. Environmentally friendly. We’ll even make Greta happy.

So, did we have any great realization yet? Did we start packing for our move to Utopialand? For the sake of saving time, I will ignore the dictatorships on the rise, the countries announcing huge military spending, or the armed insurrection at US Capitol. Just focus on the virus…as it’s supposed to be the cause of the inflection point.

So where are we with that? There’s some good news: we do have a vaccine! Once again, our science, our collective knowledge has come through. Then the bad news: we’re already talking about “vaccine wars”. Our primitive, tribalistic nature starts showing its head again. It’s in our genes. It’s what kept our ancestors alive through the ice ages. Allowed them to outlive mammoths and sabertooth tigers. It’s human nature.

There’s always an “us”… and there’s always a “them”. And invariantly, it’s always us versus them.

There’s always an “us”: family, group, region, religion, demographic, country, nation, continent. And there’s always a “them”. And invariantly, it’s always us versus them.

The WHO complains about rich countries hoarding the vaccines. They can easily outbid the poorer ones. And they use money as moral justifications: they subsidized the development of the vaccines, so they should be first in line.

I do agree with this approach. It’s the right one. Pharmaceutical companies generally take years or even decades to develop a new vaccine, because it’s expensive. And risky. They can’t commit all their resources to one goal. It’s common wisdom: never put all your eggs in one basket. Now, they were free to charge in with all their resources, not afraid of fuckups since the governments will pick up the tab regardless. They will give a new basket and all the eggs they can carry.

So even if richer countries get it first — and I know some left-wing liberals that will be pissed with this statement — it’s still equitable. It’s still better than the alternative. Instead of everyone waiting 7 to 10 years for a vaccine, richer countries pay for the development and we get it within months. Those who paid for it get access first, the others later. Everybody gets it faster than under normal flow. Years faster, to be exact.

Are we experiencing the rise of the intelligent politician?

So the politicians got it right this time. Can this be the inflection point? Our great realization? Are we experiencing the rise of the intelligent politician? I’m going to go with a nope on this one too.

Living in the EU, I’m basing my statement on the current situation. A couple of weeks ago, the Commission got in a row with AstraZeneca over the company’s intention of cutting down on the promised number of doses for the EU, while supplementing them to the UK.

To give credit where it’s due, the Commission did act quickly and swiftly, with Belgian authorities raiding an AstraZeneca factory and enforcing an EU wide ban on vaccines exports to other countries, including the UK. The British government did ban the export of Covid related medicine to the EU almost one year ago and they extended that list in October 2020, so there’s no need to feel bad for them. And as always, it’s us versus them. So fuck them!

The real question is how did we get here? And the real answer is: we may never know since the details of negotiations are confidential and whatever contracts the EU published are heavily redacted. But we can still speculate. My take on this is simple. The economy. The source of all that’s good and the root of all that’s evil.

The economy. The source of all that’s good and the root of all that’s evil.

In the early days, the EU boasted about negotiating better deals with the pharmaceutical companies, getting better prices, and saving taxpayer money. A worthy cause. On the other end, the UK didn’t have the numbers to negotiate, so they pay more per dose. Probably significantly more. Which would incentivize the company to sell it to the British first. The COVID vaccine is a cash cow now, but it will die abruptly once the pandemic is over, so they need to milk it as much as they can. I can’t blame them, I’d do the same…

But did the EU Commission really had to negotiate with pharmas to get better prices? The GDP of the EU was in 2019 about 18.29 trillion US dollars. That puts it at about 50 billion per day of economic output. At this rate, it takes the EU about 12 hours to beat the yearly economic output of countries like Iceland or Cambodia, a full two days to beat Cuba, about 12 days to overtake Argentina, and a little over two weeks for Turkey.

So my question now is: what the fuck discount did the EU get from the pharmaceutical companies at the bargaining table that was so important to warrant the risk of further delays? How much does it cost to keep the entire continent locked down for just one week? And how much does the discount on the vaccine cover from that cost? One percent? I’d be amazed.

If they had any trace of a working brain, they’d just paid whatever the asked price was and be very strict on the delivery calendar, not haggle for a cheaper vaccine to be delivered “within reasonable best efforts”. QED: the pandemic didn’t create intelligent politicians either.

So where’s that Great Realisation then? The post-pandemic utopia is as far away as any other utopia. Nothing has changed. And nothing will. I did have a great realization, though. The weather forecast was wrong. Again. I’ll go outside to get some fresh air. Smoking is bad.

I told you so…

Trust me, I used to be an engineer!