[Column] America needs to return, with vaccines

Posted on : 2021-04-30 16:47 KST Modified on : 2021-04-30 16:47 KST
Now that “America is back,” the world expects something different from the US
Hwang Joon-bum
Hwang Joon-bum

By Hwang Joon-bum, Washington correspondent

Not long ago, I received my second dose of Pfizer’s vaccine for COVID-19. The fact that I’m currently in the US enabled me to get the jab much faster than my compatriots back in Korea.

While public services are infamously slow in the US, getting the vaccine has made me change my mind a little. Since April 19, anyone above the age of 16 has been able to sign up for a vaccination through various channels, including government offices and drugstore chains.

When I got my second dose of the vaccine, I parked my car at a large vaccination center and then got in line as I waited to enter the building. It only took about 10 minutes to get the shot.

Not only medical workers but also volunteers, service members, and law enforcement officers were positioned at intervals, ensuring that everything proceeded swiftly and safely. The female medical worker who gave me the shot bragged that the system worked like clockwork.

I could feel that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is serious about vaccinating everyone who wants it by the end of May.

Looking back over the past year, it’s hard to believe I’m living in the same country. Back then, US President Donald Trump and his subordinates struggled to answer why the US had failed to roll out COVID-19 testing as South Korea had.

Trump horrified the world by speculating that ingesting disinfectant could help kill the coronavirus. The government’s messaging about mask-wearing was confusing.

While the US had worried people around the world, it has now become an object of envy. President Biden’s vaccination blitz has given 54.2% of American adults at least one shot of COVID-19 vaccines, while 37.3% are now fully vaccinated.

The US’s daily caseload has fallen from 250,000 a day in January to 50,000 a day more recently, while the daily death toll has also plummeted from 3,000 to 600. The US is awash in vaccines. Amid predictions that the domestic supply of vaccines will soon exceed demand, officials are pondering how to convince reluctant young people and conservatives in the countryside to accept the vaccine.

According to the Global Health Innovation Center at Duke University, the US has signed supply contracts for 1.21 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine, including 600 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna, as well as more from Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Novavax. That’s enough vaccines to inoculate every American adult three times over.

While South Korea’s extensive government outreach and high level of public cooperation have made it a model for disease control, the US’s technological prowess and astronomical scale of investment have made it a vaccine powerhouse.

Now the world is looking to the US. Determined to vaccinate Americans first, the Biden administration has shut its ears to the appeals of public health experts and the international community to share vaccines, raw materials, and manufacturing techniques.

It wasn’t until an outcry about horrifying conditions in India that the US announced it would share its extra doses of AstraZeneca with other countries. The US also said it would provide India with medications and the raw materials needed to produce the vaccine.

The White House also said it would look into a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on vaccine technology to promote production of the vaccine.

But some in the US government reportedly think it’s still too soon to send the vaccine to other countries. Vaccine manufacturers are staunchly opposed to the idea of suspending their patents.

The responsibility for sharing vaccines can’t lay solely on the shoulders of the US. It’s not even clear whether the US can be criticized for inoculating its citizens first.

But now that “America is back,” as Biden declared, the world expects something different from the US than the “America first” line taken by Trump. It was Biden who promised to lead the world “by the power of our example.”

During a virtual interview in July 2020, Ady Barkan, an activist with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), asked Biden if he would share vaccine technology with other countries if the US developed it first. “The answer is yes. Yes, yes, yes. And it’s not only a good thing to do, it’s overwhelmingly in our interest to do it as well,” Biden said.

Bolder global leadership on vaccines would give the world a chance to clearly perceive that America has indeed returned.

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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