The Government must act now to buy two million doses of covid19 vaccine to distribute to the population.
The State has so far ordered 400,000 vaccine doses. This represents under 15 per cent of the population, compared to the up to 90 per cent that experts estimate will be required for herd immunity. This is more than two million doses short of what we need, assuming we use a two-dose vaccine.
Our case numbers have been falling until recently. But make no mistake, unless and until almost the entire population is vaccinated, 2021 will be a repeat of 2020. Or worse. It takes very little for cases to spike again. Our first reprieve lasted barely three months before the second wave drove us to community spread, exactly as predicted.
Do we want to keep living under the immense stress and terror of this virus? The next spike in cases, when it comes (and it is when, not if, without mass vaccination) will be much worse. It is likely to be driven by one of the new highly infectious virus strains, like the one that has just hit Barbados with hundreds of new cases and has driven that fragile economy into total lockdown. Rich countries like the UK have not been able to cope, even under mass lockdowns. We have nowhere near their level of resources – our death toll could mount rapidly.
Even if we’re successful at containing it, hundreds will die. If we’re not, then thousands. Many more will face the terrible fate of “long covid,” the debilitating effects of which persist after the virus has left the system. Depression and anxiety will run rampant.
The buffers we had at the start of the pandemic, both financial and emotional, have been worn to the bone. People are exhausted. Tempers will fray and discipline slacken. We are social animals by nature and that will start to force its way out, regulations or no.
Businesses barely survived the last round of lockdowns. Many went under, along with thousands of jobs. Another couple of months of severe lockdowns will just about do it for the rest. The toll in blood and treasure will be vast.
The incredible thing is that we have it in our power to prevent all of this. Then what is preventing it?
It cannot be cost. The Moderna vaccine costs about US$74, while Pfizer’s vaccine costs some US$39 per person (but requires costly cold storage).
On top of our current order, it will cost another US$40-US$76 million ($272-$516 million) to vaccinate the entire population to a level of herd immunity. Put that into perspective. This is between 0.5 and 1.0 per cent of this year’s national budget, and between 0.2 and 0.3 per cent of nominal 2020 GDP.
This is pennies when you remember that covid19 caused GDP to fall by $9 billion in 2020, even forgetting the opportunity cost of the lost growth expected last year. Distancing measures, so crucial to protect against the virus for the unvaccinated, have cost billions and will continue to do so without full vaccination.
The economic return on investment for buying vaccines will at a minimum be, back-of-the-envelope, up to 1,200 per cent. Restored economic activity will directly feed into restored taxes. Whichever way you look at it, there is zero financial case for not ordering all the vaccines immediately.
Yes we are one of the smaller players, with less clout than bigger countries with bigger coffers. That is even more reason to get in the front of the queue now and pre-order enough for our whole population. As time passes, more and more vaccines are being given the green light. Moderna and Pfizer are not the only players. AstraZeneca has been approved in some countries.
We should get ahead of the game. On the strength of recent trials demonstrating 78 per cent efficacy, the Brazilian city of São Paulo, relatively much poorer than TT, bought 48 million doses of the Sinovac vaccine.
Indeed, many citizens are willing to pay. It is a minuscule cost compared with our entire livelihoods and the chance of seeing loved ones. But drugs distributors will need the government to join with them to get attention from manufacturers bombarded by calls. The Prime Minister himself will need to call pharmaceutical CEOs Stéphane Bancel (Moderna), Albert Boula (Pfizer), and Yin Weidong (Sinovac) or one of their senior executive teams.
The government has the chance to build on the credibility it has gained from containing the virus and solidify that into legacy-building stuff. As well as saving lives, mass vaccination will save billions and be hugely politically popular. This is a no-brainer.
Kiran Mathur Mohammed is a social entrepreneur, economist and businessman. He is a former banker and a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.