Although the international response to climate change remains inadequate, it is now rooted in a common understanding that it is a global crisis capable only of being resolved collectively by common co-ordinated action. That key psychological and political barrier has yet to be crossed in dealing with Covid.
As World Health Organisation (WHO) head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus argued on Monday, the pandemic is now "a crisis of solidarity and sharing", reflecting "a splintered and disjointed approach". At a WHO conference on a new pandemic convention or treaty, Tedros insisted that vaccine equity, transforming access to inoculation in the developing world, was not an ethical issue but one central to the survival of all. There is no hiding place.
A new treaty, reforming global pandemic management governance and co-ordination, creating new common funding instruments, and beefing up the WHO and its satellite institutions, would be an important step in preparing for future pandemics, and one that Ireland should strongly advocate for. But it will take time.
The Omicron variant requires us also to act now. Its ability to spread in southern Africa is very much a function of low vaccination rates, hobbled by the monopolisation by first world countries of vaccines. Even as rich nations are administering booster shots, more than 3.5 billion people are waiting for their first dose in the rest of the world. Africa remains the most under-vaccinated, with some seven per cent of its 1.3 billion people fully immunised, while the rich world has vaccinated about 54 per cent of its population.
Developed nations have committed to donate some of their excess doses and the US bought one billion Pfizer-BioNTech shots for the rest of the world. But only around half a billion doses overall have reached developing nations so far.
South Africa, along with India and many international NGOs, have also been pressing the World Trade Organisation to help improve access to vaccines by waiving the multinational Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) agreement. A temporary waiver for Covid vaccines, a call supported on Friday by US President Joe Biden, but opposed to date by the EU, would allow them to be manufactured more widely, improving global distribution.
The developed world must also step up direct aid. United Nations and WHO data show that high-income countries only have to increase their healthcare spending by 0.8 per cent to cover the cost of vaccinating 70 per cent of their own populations, while low-income countries, would need to increase their spend by nearly 57 per cent to have the same effect. The means to address that imbalance are there if the developed world shows the will. If nothing else, self-interest requires it to do so.