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Chris Johns: What happens to fear when vaccination catches up with Covid?

Will economies remain limited for years to come and how will we pay for this?

A watershed moment awaits: when enough people have been vaccinated and hospital capacity restored, will we nevertheless remain heavily restricted because of fear?

Your columnist has had Covid and also been vaccinated. Some countries realise that vaccination is a sprint – a long-distance one, for sure, but one where speed saves both lives and money.

False economy and state incapacity are behind too-slow vaccine rollouts. Penny pinching drove the European Union’s vaccination development and deployment: some policymakers don’t realise that the return on investment is massive. Spend billions to save trillions.

Why am I still under quasi-house arrest? You don’t have to be a libertarian wing-nut to at least ask the question. Residual transmission risks, vaccination-busting variants and ethics are the reasons given for my ongoing loss of liberty.

Transmission

The science isn’t definitive. Some experts say that it is ‘likely’ that immunity, however conferred, will reduce the chances of transmission should I once again be exposed to Covid. The Centers for Disease Control in the United States says that a fully vaccinated person has no need to quarantine after contact with Covid.

I ‘almost certainly’ have some degree of immunity to the known variants but no one is sure. And we can speculate about variants yet to come that completely overwhelm my defences.

Maybe my single dose (so far) of the vaccine rules out my liberation, at least until I get the second dose. Yet the evidence is piling up that the single-dose strategy works, evidence that the Irish medical community, at least those parts of it driving policy, continues to dismiss.

Fear and ethical considerations are quite reasonable drivers of policy

France has broken with the EU consensus about the single dose, at least in terms that apply directly to me. There, the authorities have decreed that anyone recovered from Covid needs only a single vaccination.

This combination appears to confer at least the same level of immunity as two doses. Research has been published to back up the French policy.

Ethics

Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel recently posed my question in less confrontational terms. His focus was on vaccine ethics. Should people be allowed to pay to jump the queue?

His panel was strongly opposed. As Sandel gently pointed out, that ship has already sailed. The head of the World Health Organisation has told us that 16 per cent of the world’s population has bought up 60 per cent of global supply.

Are vaccine passports ethical? Most panellists said no, casting their answers in terms of inequality.

An economist would say that a passport for people like me would be an optimal policy: nobody is made worse off but somebody is better off.

It would confer broad benefits, particularly if I start spending. The only alternative is to wait for everyone to get vaccinated. That will be a very long wait.

My own personal circumstances aren’t that interesting but they do illustrate the dilemma facing the authorities in the weeks and months ahead. Once there are enough people like me, what happens next?

Societal and economic reopening depend on the answers to my questions. And there are no easy ones, nor, I venture to suggest, will there be. It’s going to be about risk assessment, something that we are useless at.

Support

Fear of variants will keep borders closed until the world is vaccinated and/or reaches some immunity threshold. That could be years away. In which case, without further extensive support, say goodbye to many of the world’s airlines and international tourism.

If ethics dictate that individual liberty cannot happen until it is available to everyone we will be locked down for years.

Fear and ethical considerations are quite reasonable drivers of policy. ‘Fear’ is a pejorative term for either a different risk assessment to mine, or agreement about the risks but a different degree of willingness to bear them. I don’t think we are answering these questions in the right way.

In the UK and Ireland, prospects of economic reopening are discussed in terms of caution. We face months, at least, of restrictions with only gradual easing. There is talk of restrictions lasting years.

Melbourne is locked down again. Zero-Covid mandates this and reveals itself to be a mirage, at least if we take it literally. Policies based on sealed borders are not sustainable for the long term if, as most scientists believe, Covid is with us forever.

Even Australia and New Zealand will one day have to open their borders. An honest policy discussion should focus on Covid’s existence rather than an assumption about its magical disappearance.

Risk

Unless we are prepared for some risk, it is hard to see how all of our current restrictions aren’t open-ended. Which makes them unsustainable.

Have we been lulled into a false sense of security via the ease with which governments can borrow to support those whose livelihoods have been shattered by Covid?

Do we believe that the economic consequences of years more of restrictions can be dealt with by years of unconstrained borrowing? Nobody knows where the debt limit lies but it is out there somewhere.

Nobody knows the consequences of borrowings to date: the growing worry in the darker corners of financial markets is that inflation lies in our economic future.

The obsession with the border mandates that the country remains closed until Covid is eradicated everywhere. That’s unsustainable and will, therefore, change.

A watershed moment awaits: when enough people have been vaccinated and hospital capacity restored, will we nevertheless remain heavily restricted because of fear?

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Chris Johns: What happens to fear when vaccination catches up with Covid?

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